MINSK: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (L) speaks with US National Security Advisor John Bolton during their meeting. – AFP

MINSK: Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko said yesterday he was looking to open a “new chapter” in ties with Washington as he welcomed the White House national security advisor for rare talks in Minsk. Lukashenko met with John Bolton as the aide to President Donald Trump continued his tour of ex-Soviet countries that was sure to ruffle feathers in Moscow.  The Belarusian president, a crucial ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, said he hoped the visit would mark a turning point after years of distrust.

“Since the start of the deterioration of our relations with the United States, we have constantly proposed turning this bad page and opening a new chapter in our relations,” Lukashenko said. He said Bolton’s visit would help “create the foundation for future relations” and that he hoped for “frank” discussions on “all issues”. “History is moving forward,” the Belarusian presidency quoted Bolton as saying. “A lot of time has passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the geopolitical situation has changed.”

The US embassy in Minsk said earlier that Bolton would “discuss regional security and emphasize US support for Belarus’s sovereignty and independence” during the talks often dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship”, Belarus has been largely isolated by the international community, though Russia remains a close ally. Speculation has swirled for years of unification with Russia, in particular as a way for Putin to circumvent Russia’s constitutional term limits.

Lukashenko, a Soviet-era collective farm chief who become Belarus’s first post-independence president, has often pushed back, saying earlier this year that 98 percent of his citizens oppose unification with Russia. Belarus was long subject to Western sanctions over the country’s poor rights record and lack of fair elections.

Russian ‘weak spots’

In 2016 the US eased its sanctions, saying this opened the door to “expanded commercial ties”. The European Union meanwhile dropped its sanctions in what it said was a bid to encourage progress on human rights. But the Belarusian authorities have ramped up efforts to control media since anti-government demonstrations in 2017, with independent journalists and activists facing pressure and harassment.

Bolton’s visit to Minsk comes after a meeting with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev on Wednesday.  The US advisor stressed Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” in the face of its conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the country’s east. Earlier yesterday Bolton met with the president and prime minister of Moldova, where he said the US would continue working with the former Soviet republic in defense and the economy.

Moldova recently formed a new government made up of an unusual coalition of pro-European and pro-Russian forces, following months of political turmoil. “We discussed a wide range of questions relating to bilateral ties, and noted how these had strengthened after a peaceful transfer of power in June this year,” Moldovan President Igor Dodon said. Analysts said Bolton’s trip was aimed at probing for “weak spots” on Russia’s borders. “The United States is likely to search for openings to increase its influence in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova,” US geopolitical think tank Stratfor said.

It was the highest-ranking US visit to Belarus in two decades, Stratfor said. The last US ambassador to Minsk left the country in 2008 in a spat over sanctions.  “While Belarus remains firmly within Russia’s orbit, the countries’ recent spats over oil supplies may have created an opening for the United States to attempt to expand economic and energy ties,” Stratfor added.  – AFP