Mike Pompeo says US ready to meet all Belarus’s oil needs
First visit by a secretary of state in 26 years comes as former Soviet country seeks closer ties
Mandatory Credit: Photo by NIKOLAI PETROV/BELTA/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10545438e) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) talk at the Palace of Independence in Minsk, Belarus, 01 February 2020. Pompeo is on an official visit to Belarus. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Belarus, Minsk - 01 Feb 2020
James Shotter, Central Europe Correspondent February 1 2020
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Mike Pompeo said that the US was ready to provide all of Belarus’s oil needs, as he became the first American secretary of state to visit the former Soviet state in more than a quarter of a century.
Mr Pompeo’s visit comes amid heightened tension between Belarus and its traditional ally, Russia, which has been pushing its reluctant neighbour to accept deeper integration, and temporarily cut oil supplies last month.
Mr Pompeo, who is also due to visit Kazakhstan during his trip, said that the US wanted to help Belarus “build its own sovereign country” and, in a dig at Russia, said that it could meet Belarus’s entire oil demand “at competitive prices”.
“We’re the biggest energy producer in the world, and all you have to do is call us,” he said at a press conference with Belarus’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei.
US relations with Belarus have traditionally been frigid, and the US imposed sanctions on strongman Aleksander Lukashenko’s regime in 2008 over human rights abuses.
In recent months, however, as Russian president Vladimir Putin has ratcheted up the pressure on Minsk, Belarus has made tentative overtures to the west, easing visa restrictions for EU citizens, as well as warming relations with the US. Last month, it started importing gas from Norway as an alternative to Russian supplies.
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The US and Belarus said in September that they would exchange ambassadors for the first time in 12 years, and Mr Pompeo said on Saturday that he hoped this would happen soon.
“It’s something that we’ve made a lot of progress on and I think we can, if everything proceeds apace, have an ambassador here before too terribly long. I think it’d be a great thing for us,” he said, noting that the US had recently doubled its diplomatic staff in the country.
Mr Makei said that Mr Pompeo’s visit, the first by a US secretary of state since 1994, when Mr Lukashenko took power, was “obvious proof that Belarus and American relations are becoming more active”, and expressed hope that it would help lead to a normalisation in relations between the two countries.
“We would welcome the more active role of the United States here in Belarus . . . We are quite interested in American business coming here to Belarus and working quite actively,” he said.
“We have also highlighted the co-operation between our law enforcement agencies, and both sides are committed to the development of the co-operation in the area of regional and world security. We have exchanged opinions on the situation in the region and the co-operation of the Republic of Belarus with Nato.”
Belarus’s human rights record has long been a stumbling block to better ties with the EU and the US and Mr Pompeo said that he and Mr Makei had discussed this, as well as other reforms that Belarus could make to help attract greater US engagement.
“WTO accession, increased private sector development, and legal and regulatory reforms will all help Belarus unlock its trade potential and secure its own sovereignty,” he said.
Mr Makei acknowledged that Belarus had work do, but said that the country was committed to making progress. “Probably Belarus is not an absolutely ideal country in this respect, and we do understand that we must implement some reforms in many areas, including the area of human rights, and we do that,” he said.