Pompeo Visits Belarus As U.S. Seeks To ‘Normalize’ Relations

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting Belarus on February 1 at a time when the West is attempting to lure the former Soviet republic away from Russia’s orbit.

Pompeo’s visit also comes at a time of relief in Belarus as the country learned it will not be included in an expanded version of U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban after initial reports suggested it would.

America’s top diplomat is scheduled to meet with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka during his stop in Minsk.

Lukashenka, who has been president since the position was created in 1994, has been portrayed in the West as “”Europe’s last dictator,” but he has sought to improve relations with Washington while at the same time recognizing his country’s heavy reliance on Russia for energy supplies and funding.

Pompeo will be the highest-level U.S. official to visit the country in more than a decade.

“The secretary will meet with President Lukashenka and Foreign Minister [Vladmir] Makei to underscore the U.S. commitment to a sovereign, independent, stable, and prosperous Belarus, and affirm our desire to normalize our bilateral relations,” the State Department said in a statement.

Lukashenka has accused Moscow of pressuring his country to merge with Russia, using oil and natural gas supplies as a weapon.

“We have our own country, we’re sovereign and independent. With our brains and hands, we earn what we can, we’re building our own country. And we can’t be a part of some other country,” Lukashenkatold factory workers on January 24.

“I can’t betray you and dissolve Belarus, even in the brotherly Russia.”

“Even if I agree to that, Belarusians would eat me alive within a year,” said Lukashenka.

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.

However, in a sign of improving relations, John Bolton, then the U.S. national-security adviser, in August traveled to Belarus, meeting with Lukashenka to discuss energy issues.

And on January 31, a U.S. official said that Trump was issuing an expanded version of his travel ban, a decision that could impact thousands of immigrants.

But acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said that Belarus, which had been considered for inclusion in the expanded list, had taken measures to correct deficiencies lately and will not face visa restrictions.

Nationals of Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania will be affected by the partial ban, officials said.

Pompeo is arriving 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.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and dpa
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