US to exchange ambassadors with Belarus

The United States is prepared to exchange ambassadors with Belarus, a top-ranking State Department official announced Tuesday — a significant step in thawing relations between the two countries.

“It is my honor to announce that we are prepared to exchange ambassadors as the next step in normalizing our relationship,” Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale said in a statement delivered in the capital city of Minsk.

The US has not had an ambassador to Belarus since 2008, when the Belarusian government expelled the ambassador and 30 out of 35 US diplomats.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — who has been in power for 25 years and is nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” — and more than a dozen other Belarusian officials were sanctioned by the US in 2006 after a presidential election “that violated international norms and was neither free nor fair,” according to the US State Department. President Donald Trump extended those sanctions in mid-June. In 2015, in exchange for the release of Belarusian political prisoners, the US lifted sanctions on nine state-owned entities.

Hale, who met with Lukashenko on Tuesday, said the US could “discuss further easing of sanctions” if Belarus continues to make progress toward democracy.

“There are still aspects of the Belarus Democracy Act with which the Belarusian government needs to contend, and the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections represent an opportunity to address the spirit of the concerns outlined in the Belarus Democracy Act,” he said.

Hale also met with opposition and civil society leaders in Minsk “to express America’s enduring commitment to human dignity and fundamental democratic principles,” according to the US Embassy.

As a neighbor to Russia, Belarus could play a strategically important role to the US. Hale said Tuesday that the US “remains committed to a sovereign, independent Belarus with a prosperous future for the next generation” and “welcomes Belarus’ increased cooperation on issues of non-proliferation, border security, economic cooperation, and information sharing on matters of shared security.”

However, Hale sought to stress that by normalizing relations with Minsk, the US is “not asking Belarus to choose between East and West.”

“The United States respects Belarus’ desire to chart its own course and to contribute to peace and stability in the region,” he said.

According to a readout Tuesday from the Belarusian President’s office, Lukashenko said he found US interest in the region “reassuring.”

Tuesday’s announcement by the third highest-ranking State Department diplomat comes just weeks after now-ousted national security adviser John Bolton visited the country and met with Lukashenko.

Bolton tweeted after the meeting in late August that “we share a common commitment to deepening bilateral engagement and cooperation on a wide range of issues.”

According to a readout in August from the Belarusian President’s office, Lukashenko “stressed that the sides already have a certain history of rebooting the bilateral relations.”