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Trump’s advisor in Minsk: why should we care?

Last week US National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Minsk and met the Belarusian president. The visit shows how greatly Belarus’s stock has risen in international relations over the past five years. It also adds to suggestions of ‘normalising’...

Last week US National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Minsk and met the Belarusian president. The visit shows how greatly Belarus’s stock has risen in international relations over the past five years. It also adds to suggestions of ‘normalising’ diplomatic ties between Belarus and the United States, with President Aliaksandr Lukashenka insisting that he has long wanted ‘to start a new page’ in relations. But how much substance really backs up such talk and how far could any ‘normalisation’ proceed?

Bolton’s visit came as part of a tour of eastern Europe. The National Security Advisor’s trip follows a change of administration in Ukraine and the demise of the INF Treaty. His itinerary included two full days in Ukraine, but no one should doubt the significance and symbolism of Bolton’s presence in Minsk. Ahead of his arrival he promised ‘frank’ discussion on human rights issues alongside talk about sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In the current climate it has become de rigueur to interpret Western officials’ references to ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ in the region in the light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Ongoing strains in the Belarus-Russia relationship make such an interpretation especially compelling. However, the visit proved still more significant given the dire state of Belarus-US relations in the past and, I would submit, it’s worthwhile to view the occasion in the context of improving bilateral relations.

A new normal in Belarus-US relations

The US has long been an ardent critic of Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka. In 2004 Congress passed the Belarus Democracy Act that pledged to support opposition to Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule. The following year US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labelled Belarus an ‘outpost of tyranny’ alongside North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Iran among others. The US soon imposed sanctions on the oil refiner Belneftekhim and its subsidiaries.

The Belarusians reacted by demanding that the US reduced its diplomatic staff at the US Embassy to five and the US Ambassador left Minsk under threat of formal expulsion. Belarusian diplomatic presence in the US was reciprocally downsized and bilateral relations were in freefall. The situation changed with the conflict in Ukraine as Belarus – once described as ‘a piece that fell of the chessboard’ – saw its strategic value climb.

In recent years bilateral relations have improved noticeably. Earlier this year the Belarusian authorities lifted the cap on the number of diplomatic staff it permitted the US to have in the country. Bolton’s presence in Minsk last week came on the heels of visits in October 2018 by A. Wess Mitchell, at the time the US Assistant Secretary of State, and in March this year by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent.

Bolton represented the most senior US official to go to Belarus since at least March 2001 when the Bush Administration sent a delegation. There have also been additional, less conspicuous US delegations in Minsk over the past two years with law enforcement and security agencies strengthening their cooperation.

Talk of normalising diplomatic relations has gathered momentum and the frequency of US official visits indicates both sides’ commitment to the goal. With high level officials in both states talking it up, it looks like the return of ambassadors will happen in the medium term. In the round, problems persist in the relationship and Bolton acknowledged that his meeting with Lukashenka ‘didn’t resolve any issues.’

Stumbling blocks

Belarus would like to see US sanctions lifted entirely, but late last year the US prolonged those still in place. Secondly, Belarus would like to buy US oil as a substitute for dependence on Russian oil imports, although geography calls into question whether this is a realistic prospect. A third goal may be that thawed relations will increase US investment in Belarus – though the elimination of sanctions would be crucial here.

Source: www.president.gov.by

Some trade potential undeniably exists, primarily for exports of Belarusian oil products (already the major export). However, the level of bilateral trade before sanctions was modest and there’s little evidence to suggest that this could change much because it’s not obvious where significant increases would come from. Trade volume between the two states has been consistently low; fluctuations in the data around the timing of new sanctions reflect the relatively small numbers to begin with rather than any drastic changes in trade volume.

Human rights issues remain another obstacle even if, unlike the EU, the US does not outright object to the continued use of the death penalty. Speaking after his meeting with the Belarusian head of state, Bolton acknowledged differences over human rights. The remark sounded like little more than a sop to the human rights lobby and, while one might argue that human rights fall outside of Bolton’s job description, it’s fair to conclude that he soft-pedalled on those issues for now.

Bolton sure to have irked the Kremlin

And the biggest obstacle of all is Russia, which will be nervous about its ally increasing ties to the US. The Kremlin’s credibility would be severely dented if Russian citizens thought that they risked ‘losing Belarus’ – however unlikely in reality.

Yet the Russia relationship remains by far the most important one to Belarus, which accordingly acts in its international relations with Russian onlookers in mind. Belarus has sought social capital from its role in the Ukraine peace talks and official sources confirm that the Ukraine conflict featured prominently in the Bolton-Lukashenka talks.

One can assume that Belarusian officials, having afforded Bolton a meeting with the head of state, will make a compensatory gesture towards Russia. Polish media speculated about Lukashenka’s absence from a ceremony in Warsaw on Sunday in this regard: Belarusian officials have joined their Russian colleagues in arguing against Poland’s calls for a US military base on its territory (another issue that will surely have been discussed by Lukashenka and Bolton).

Last week also saw Lukashenka’s 65th birthday. Bolton’s visit proved something of a birthday gift for the Belarusian leader in so far as it bolsters Belarusian efforts to demonstrate to Russia that it has foreign policy options. Then again, in an interview with Radio Free Europe’s Current Time, Bolton was asked about alleged Russian desires for Belarusian-Russian unification. The US official remarked that sovereignty was a matter for the ‘Belarusian people’ – as opposed, presumably, to the president and his inner circle. The Kremlin, confident it finds favour among Belarusians, might not mind that so much.

Paul Hansbury

Paul is an associate analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre and an associate fellow with the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.

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