Why Bolton’s Trip to Belarus Matters

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White House national security adviser John Bolton traveled Thursday to Belarus to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. That’s significant, because no senior U.S. official had visited Belarus in more than 18 years.

During the meeting, Lukashenko said that he would like to open a “new chapter” in U.S.-Belarus relations, despite what Bolton called “significant issues.” Those issues include Belarus’ human rights record and the Russian threat posed in the country.

Belarus, located in Eastern Europe, is regarded as Europe’s last remaining dictatorship. It’s a former member of the Soviet Union and scores low in terms of press freedom, democracy, and economic freedom.

Out of 180 countries surveyed in Reporters Without Borders’
2019 World Press Freedom Index, Belarus scores 153rd. That stems
partly from Lukashenko’s decision last year to impose about
100 fines on journalists
for working for exiled media outlets.

In The Heritage Foundation’s 2019 Index of Economic Freedom,
Belarus is
ranked 104th
out of 180 countries. That ranking designates
it as a “mostly unfree nation.”

Belarus is also known for elections that are neither free,
nor fair.

For years, U.S. relations with Belarus have suffered. Lukashenko
is an autocratic ruler, and he has made Belarus straddle Russia and the West
for years.

Belarus also has a history of human rights abuses. Those abuses
have caused the U.S. to introduce multiple rounds of sanctions on Belarus over at
least the past decade.

It’s extremely significant that Bolton visited, for a couple
of reasons.

First, this past January, Belarus finally lifted the cap on
the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in Minsk. Before, since 2008, Belarus had
allowed only five
American diplomats
to serve at the U.S. Embassy. But now, that cap
has been lifted.

This decision on Minsk’s part signals a thawing in relations
with Washington.

In addition, it was recently reported that Belarus is seeking to buy U.S. crude oil. That would help loosen Moscow’s grip on Minsk, given that Russia currently provides about 99% of Belarus’ crude oil imports.

It’s great news that Bolton met with Lukashenko. A meeting
between top officials from the U.S. and Belarus was long overdue.

Nonetheless, Russia will continue to be involved in the economic, military, and political affairs of Belarus for years to come. Later this year, for example, Belarus and Russia are set to discuss integrating as a union state. That means the two nations would join as one, with its own currency, economy, and flag in tow.

Thus, Russia isn’t releasing its grip on Belarus any time
soon, and the U.S. should remain wary.

U.S. interest in Belarus is still important, though. Belarus
borders NATO members in the Baltic region, including Poland. In order to
maintain its commitment
to security
for those nations, the U.S. needs to keep in
mind Russia’s influence in, and threat posed to, Belarus. Thankfully, Bolton went
in with this mindset already.

Bolton’s meeting with Lukashenko is a step in the right
direction, and dialogue with Belarus should remain a priority moving forward.

If anything at all is to come from this meeting, it’s that
it has definitely put the Kremlin on its toes. But for Belarus, it likely only
improved its bargaining position with Russia for the future.