While the much anticipated visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Minsk on February 1 marks a turning point for relations between Belarus and the United States, its immediate effects may be limited.
“The US wants to help Belarus create its sovereign state and our energy producers are ready to provide you with the necessary oil to cover 100 per cent of your needs at competitive prices. We are the largest energy producer in the world, and all you need to do is tell us and contact us,” said Mr Pompeo during his visit. He also said that the US was ready to deliver foreign investment opportunities but called for “easier conditions” for American companies to enter the Belarusian market.
In turn, the Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko praised his US counterpart Donald Trump and his government for revitalising relations with Belarus, arguing that the visit comes after “baseless misunderstandings” with previous US administrations.
The visit, which follows unsuccessful Russian attempts to agree on closer integration with Belarus, is almost certain to provoke a new diplomatic spat between Moscow and Minsk, although the Russian government has said that Minsk’s third-party relations are a sovereign matter of Belarus.
“We can hardly talk about an ultra-rapid convergence here,” said Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, downplaying Mr Pompeo’s pitch, adding that Russia was still in talks with the Belarusian governments to solve problematic issues.
Although Mr Pompeo’s visit indicates growing US interest in Belarus, and cements an agreement by the two sides last September to fully restore diplomatic relations, the likelihood of increased cooperation between Washington and Minsk remains limited. While the US could satisfy 100 per cent of Belarusian energy needs, Minsk will most likely not opt for a solution that would infuriate Russia.
After the Russian and Belarusian governments failed to agree on a new oil treaty last month, leaving Belarus, which heavily relies on Russian fossil fuels, in limbo, Mr Lukashenko said that his country would turn to Norway, Poland, Ukraine, the Middle East – and to some extent, the United States – in order to reduce the share of Russian oil imports to 30 per cent.
Despite restoring diplomatic relations, Washington is also unlikely to lift sanctions introduced after the US and the EU declared the 2006 presidential election in Belarus undemocratic.
The sanctions, introduced by former US President George W. Bush, prohibit a number of high profile Belarus individuals from owning property in the US and from doing business with US companies.
Similarly restrictive measures against Belarusian companies were suspended in 2015 following the release of several political prisoners, as well as parliamentary elections in the same year which resulted in the first ever opposition MPs entering the country’s parliament.
“Belarus has made real progress on democratisation and human rights issues, but there is still work to be done. The United States prioritises respect for human rights, a strong civil society and press freedom in every corner of the world. Progress in these areas is the only way towards lifting American sanctions,” said Mr Pompeo.
The 2019 Belarusian parliamentary election, which – according to the Organisation for Security in Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – showed “an overall disregard for fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression” and were conducted with “limited” impartiality and independence, saw no opposition MPs keep their seats.
Prior to visiting the Belarusian capital, the US Secretary of State visited Kyiv to reaffirm US support for the war-torn country at a time when Ukraine is still at the centre of attention in American domestic politics over the impeachment trial of President Trump and his alleged attempts to tie 400 million US dollars of foreign aid to the Ukrainian authorities’ investigation of former US vice president Joe Biden.
Mr Trump is likely to be acquitted by the US Senate on February 5.
Speaking at a press conference with Mr Pompeo, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine enjoyed a “broad bipartisan consensus” in the US Congress, which is evidenced by the volume of congressional assistance programmes for Ukraine in 2020, already nearing almost 700 million US dollars.
“Ukraine is willing to develop new forms of partnership with the US in the field of security,” Mr Zelensky said, adding that Ukraine is still willing to consider purchasing arms from US defence companies.
With the impeachment trial nearing its end, stepping up defence support for Ukraine will be crucial for the Trump administration to ensure its commitment towards a country that is deemed a “strategic partner.”