Updated at 18:32,10-08-2020

Pompeo: Belarus Doesn't Need To Pick Between U.S. And Russia

RFE/RL with reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service and dpa

Pompeo: Belarus Doesn't Need To Pick Between U.S. And Russia
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (file photo)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the United States seeks closer ties with Belarus but added Minsk did not need to take sides between Washington and Moscow.

Pompeo made the remark at a meeting in Minsk on February 1 with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

"There's a long history with Russia. It's not about picking us between the two. We want to be here," he said.

Washington would appoint a new ambassador to Minsk soon, Pompeo said, adding that the United States would continue to push for human rights reforms while also fostering closer economic ties.

Pompeo's visit is the first by a U.S. secretary of state to Belarus since Warren Christopher accompanied then-President Bill Clinton to Minsk in 1994.

His one-day visit comes with relations between Russia and Belarus strained over the failure to agree on an oil supply contract for this year. That row comes amid a broader dispute between Moscow and Minsk in which Lukashenka has accused the Kremlin of trying to pressure Belarus into a deeper union with Russia.

Washington, in another boost to its ties with Belarus, on January 31 omitted it from a list of countries under a travel ban after earlier signaling its possible inclusion.

"It is very good that you, after all kinds of misunderstandings in relations between Belarus and the United States, absolutely baseless misunderstandings ... you risked coming to Minsk to look at this country," Lukashenka told Pompeo.



In a seemingly jocular reference to the West's characterization of him as a dictator, Lukashenka told Pompeo: "Our dictatorship is different, in that everybody is resting on Saturday and Sunday, and the president works."

Lukashenka has said he has held talks with the United States and other countries to secure alternative energy supplies. Moscow suspended supplies to refineries in Belarus from January 1, though it partially restored them on January 4.

"The United States wants to help Belarus build its own sovereign country. Our energy producers stand ready to deliver 100 percent of the oil you need at competitive prices," Pompeo said at a meeting with Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makei.

Makei acknowledged that Belarus recognized the necessity of making changes. "Belarus is probably not the most ideal country in this regard, and we do understand that we must implement some reforms in many areas, including the area of human rights -- and we are doing this," he said.

U.S. relations with Belarus -- a country of some 10 million people -- deteriorated more than a decade ago when Washington imposed sanctions on Lukashenka following the 2006 Belarusian presidential election on allegations of "human rights abuses related to political repression."

Belarus then recalled its ambassador to Washington and told the U.S. envoy to leave Belarus.

Pompeo arrived in Belarus after stops in London and in Ukraine as part of Washington's efforts to express support for Kyiv in its battle to combat what U.S. officials label as "Russian aggression."

Pompeo's trip will also take him to the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan before it ends on February 4.