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A Diplomatic Breakthrough for Washington in Europe’s Last Dictatorship
Belarus lifts a cap on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country as Minsk looks west and spars with Moscow.
Belarus has lifted a long-standing cap on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country, in what U.S. officials see as a significant diplomatic breakthrough with the ex-Soviet nation as its ties with Russia fray.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei informed the U.S. State Department’s top diplomat on Europe, Wess Mitchell, of the decision in a phone call on Thursday, according to two diplomatic sources briefed on the matter.
The decision in part reverses a sharp decline in diplomatic relations between the United States and the authoritarian-style government in Belarus, dating back to the first years after the Cold War.
“It’s a big step. This is the beginning of a thaw,” said one U.S. official.
The announcement came after months of increased engagement with Belarus by the Trump administration. It also comes amid a political clash between President Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s longtime strongman, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Minsk is highly dependent on Russian energy subsidies, which form the cornerstone of the Belarusian economy. But recently the two countries have been locked in a bitter dispute over Russia’s plan to hike the price of oil exports in a move that could cost the Belarusian government billions of dollars in lost revenue.
“If the Russian leadership opts for such course and the loss of its only ally in the West, it would be their choice,” Lukashenko reportedly told his aides this week after recent talks with Putin.
The last U.S. ambassador posted to Minsk was expelled in 2008 after the United States imposed additional sanctions on Belarus, citing the country’s deteriorating human rights situation. Thirty of the 35 diplomats serving in the country were also ejected, and since then Belarus has limited the number of officials serving in the embassy to five, and later 10, according to diplomatic sources. A U.S. embassy in a country the size of Belarus could otherwise typically have around 30 staff members, not including local hires.
A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment, saying the department’s press operations are on a “reduced status” due to the ongoing federal government shutdown.
For nearly 25 years, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus in Soviet-style fashion, consolidating control over the country while neighboring states transitioned to democracy and joined institutions such as the European Union and NATO. Under Lukashenko, Belarus has earned the moniker of “the last dictatorship in Europe.”
Though Belarus remains aligned with Moscow, Lukashenko has long played Russia and the West against each other in a bid to shore up his grip on power at home. But Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and role in fomenting war in Ukraine appear to have unnerved the Belarusian leader and prompted him to rethink relations with Moscow.
“Since the invasion of the Ukraine, [Lukashenko] has turned into the biggest Belarusian nationalist. But before, he was very ambiguous and talked of Belarus and Russia linking up,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who served as a U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s.
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Belarusian president has increasingly made overtures to the West. He freed any remaining political prisoners in 2015, which prompted the United States and the European Union to lift many of the sanctions in place over human rights concerns.
Sensing a diplomatic opening due to the fissures with Moscow, the Trump administration has stepped up engagement with the Belarusian government. In October 2018, Mitchell became the first senior U.S. diplomat to visit Belarus in over a decade. His visit included a meeting with Lukashenko.
Yauheni Preiherman, the head of the Belarusian-based Minsk Dialogue Track II Initiative, said the Obama administration was reluctant to pursue closer ties with Belarus until its human rights record improved.
While there has been no major political reform in Belarus, the authorities have loosened their grip on power in recent years, a sign many analysts see as an attempt to stay on good terms with the West.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer