Belarus, U.S. Prepare to Exchange Ambassadors After 11-Year Hiatus
After an 11-year freeze in their diplomatic relationship, the United States and Belarus have agreed to exchange ambassadors. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale (SFS ’83) announced this decision on September 17 following a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The resumption of bilateral relations comes as Russia continues to extend influence into former-Soviet territory.
The current thaw between the U.S. and Belarus is the unlikely result of years of tumult. In 2008, Lukashenko expelled the American ambassador and 30 diplomats in the wake of sanctions due to alleged human rights abuses. Earlier this year, Belarus finally lifted a five-person cap on American diplomats in the country, a move that the U.S. greeted with optimism.
“It’s a big step,” a U.S. official said of the willingness of Belarus to accept additional diplomats. “This is the beginning of a thaw.”
Belarus’s sharp shift towards diplomacy with the U.S. is due in large part to rising tensions with Russia. Lukashenko, who has maintained an authoritarian grip over Belarus for the duration of his 27-year reign, long asserted that political relations with the Kremlin would be most beneficial for his nation’s prosperity; the annexation of Crimea in 2014, however, provoked fears that Russia may not be as respectful of Belerusian territory as Lukashenko had initially imagined.
In addition, Moscow recently imposed a costly energy tax on Belarusian purchases of Russian crude oil, hitting Belarus’ government budget with billions of dollars in unforseen costs. Belarus also lost revenue that it had previously made by selling Russian oil to other European countries.
American support of Belarus, moreover, has gained traction in the face of possible Russian expansion. Of the former-Soviet states, Belarus is the only one that has maintained close ties with Russia, and the United States likely seeks to improve bilateral relations in order to influence Belarus to sever its tacit alliance with Russia.
Although Belarus continues to struggle with authoritarianism—Lukashenko’s regime has been dubbed the “last European dictatorship”—as well as an unstable economy and low standards of living, Hale expressed hope that healthy bilateral relations will help the nation to reduce dependence on Russian oil and eliminate human rights offenses.
“The United States welcomes Belarus's increased cooperation on issues of non-proliferation, border security, economic cooperation, and information sharing on matters of shared security," Hale said.