Trump Administration Expected to Appoint First Ambassador to Belarus in Over a Decade

The veteran diplomat Julie Fisher is likely to be given the task of strengthening ties with a nation still dominated by Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk on Feb. 1. Kevin Lamarque/Pool/AFP/via Getty Images

The Trump administration is likely to appoint a veteran diplomat as U.S. ambassador to Belarus—the first in more than a decade—amid its efforts to strengthen ties with a country long considered to be in Russia’s orbit.

Julie Fisher, an experienced career foreign service officer, is expected to be tapped as the new U.S. ambassador, according to people in Belarus familiar with the matter. She will be the first ambassador to the county, sometimes referred to in the West as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” since 2008.

While Belarus’s neighbors Russia and Ukraine have hogged the headlines in Washington, the Trump administration has quietly engaged in a bid to warm ties with Minsk. On Saturday, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Belarus in over 25 years, stopping over during a tour of several countries in the region. During a press conference with his Belarusian counterpart, Pompeo said that the United States was ready to provide the country with “100 percent of the oil you need at competitive prices” as Russia and Belarus are locked in an ongoing dispute about oil transit prices that saw Moscow temporarily cut off supplies at the beginning of the year. 

He also touted the importance of deploying a U.S. ambassador to Minsk. “I hope it happens quickly … I think it’s something that we could likely see in the not-too-distant future,” he said.

Fisher, a career foreign service officer, currently serves as deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Europe and the European Union. She previously served as deputy permanent representative of the U.S. mission to NATO and has been assigned to the U.S. embassies in Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia. Fisher would require nomination by the president and confirmation by the Senate to become ambassador. 

The United States and Belarus have forged closer ties in the past year through a flurry of high-level meetings and diplomatic overtures that led to Pompeo’s visit. In August 2019, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton traveled to Minsk, becoming the most senior U.S. official to visit the country in two decades before Pompeo’s trip. That September, the third-ranking State Department official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, visited Minsk and announced that the United States was preparing to exchange ambassadors with Belarus for the first time in nearly 12 years. 

Kenneth Yalowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s, said that an exchange of ambassadors would enable the two countries to improve their long-stalled relationship, but he cautioned that both sides would remain wary of each other. “I can tell you, after three years of talking with Mr. Lukashenko. It’s good to have the dialogue, but it’s not going to radically change things,” said Yalowitz, who is now a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The last U.S. ambassador to Belarus was expelled in 2008 after the United States tightened sanctions over Minsk’s declining human rights record. Thirty of the 35 diplomats posted to Belarus were also ejected, and a strict cap was placed on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed to serve in the country.

In January of last year, Belarusian officials informed the State Department that the cap would be lifted, marking a significant diplomatic breakthrough for the two countries.

Pompeo praised Belarus’s decision to allow more U.S. diplomats into the country during his press conference in Minsk. “We’ve improved our diplomatic capability here already. We’ve almost doubled the number of diplomats we have here. It’s already proven to be beneficial, I think, to the United States as well as, I think, to Belarus as well,” he said.

The State Department declined to comment for this story, referring the request to the White House. The White House did not respond to request for comment.

The anticipated announcement of a new U.S. ambassador to Belarus comes amid tense relations between some career diplomats and top Trump administration officials. Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who was the ambassador in Belarus’s southern neighbor, Ukraine, became a key witness in the congressional impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump. Yovanovitch was ousted from her job following a smear campaign by associates of Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced fierce criticism from former diplomats and Democratic lawmakers, who argued Pompeo did not stand up for career diplomats in the face of politicized attacks. 

While Belarus has long been a reliable client state of Russia, relations between the two countries have worsened in recent years, analysts say. Efforts by the Kremlin to revive a 20-year-old union state treaty between the two countries sparked fears that unification could provide a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay in power beyond his term limit by taking up the helm of a new unified entity. The Belarusian economy has long been dependent on Russian energy subsidies, which Putin sought to leverage in a bid to draw Minsk closer into his orbit. 

The two countries’ leaders met twice this past December to discuss deepening ties but little progress has been made. The negotiations sparked rare protest in Belarus over fears that it could undermine the country’s independence. Over the years, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled for over 25 years, has proved himself willing to flirt with the West to extract gains from Moscow. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea altered the calculus for Lukashenko, who has increasingly sought to keep Russia at arm’s length. 

In 2015, the United States eased sanctions on Belarus after authorities released the country’s remaining political prisoners, marking the beginning of a thaw in relations between Minsk and the West. Sanctions remain in place against several high-ranking Belarusian officials. At a press conference in Minsk, Pompeo floated the possibility of lifting U.S. sanctions on Belarus if the country improved its respect for human rights, rule of law, and press freedom. 

“We’ve been unambiguous about the things that have to happen in order to see that kind of sanctions relief. We’re not there yet, but we’re very hopeful that moments like we’re in right now, days like today, bring us closer to that,” Pompeo said.

Update, Feb. 3, 2020: This article was updated to include comment from former Ambassador Kenneth Yalowitz.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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