MINSK – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday that the United States is willing and able to provide Belarus with 100% of its oil and gas, taking a slap at Russia which recently cut off supplies.
Pompeo is the first secretary of state to visit Belarus in 26 years and arrived in Minsk amid new tensions between Minsk and Moscow over energy. In a meeting with authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, Pompeo said he hoped to help provide an opportunity for Belarus to achieve the “sovereignty” and “independence” it seeks.
“The United States wants to help Belarus build its own sovereign country," Pompeo said at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. “Our energy producers stand ready to deliver 100% of the oil you need at competitive prices. We’re the biggest energy producer in the world and all you have to do is call us.”
Belarus fears Russia is trying to absorb it and last month began purchasing gas from Norway after Russian supplies were cut off. Last week, Lukashenko accused Russia, the country's main provider of cheap oil and gas, of stopping supplies “to dissolve Belarus.”
Pompeo said the U.S. wants to help fill the vacuum and will continue to boost staffing at its embassy in Minsk, which was severely reduced 12 years ago when the U.S. imposed significant sanctions on the country over human rights abuses. The two countries agreed in September to exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2008. Pompeo said a new U.S. ambassador would be named soon.
Noting the recent history of poor relations, Lukashenko lamented the “absolutely groundless misunderstandings of the past authorities” and welcomed Pompeo's visit.
Belarus had been a candidate to be included in the Trump administration's expanded travel ban that was announced on Friday but avoided it by taking measures to improve security cooperation and potential traveler threat information with the United States.
In addition to trying to boost American influence in Belarus, Pompeo urged economic and political reforms as well as improved human rights conditions — a message similar to those he will be bringing to his next stops in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan later this weekend. At each stop, Pompeo will warn of attempts by Russia and China to aggressively assert themselves in Europe and Central Asia.
Russia stopped supplying oil to Belarus after Dec. 31. The two nations had failed to renegotiate an agreed oil price for this year during drawn-out negotiations on deepening the integration of their economies.
Moscow argues that Belarus should accept greater economic integration if it wants to continue receiving energy resources at Russia's domestic prices.
This has prompted fears in Belarus that the Kremlin is plotting to form a single state with Belarus to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin in power well past the end of his term in 2024.
Lukashenko has repeatedly rejected the idea, saying that Belarus would never become part of Russia.
The Russian suspension did not affect oil crossing Belarus to Europe or the supply of natural gas, but had consequences for Belarus, which relies on Russia for more than 80% of its energy needs.
Lukashenko has since vowed to find alternative oil suppliers and said Friday that Belarus is currently negotiating additional supplies with the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In the news conference, Pompeo also said Belarus has made “real progress” in reforms, including on human rights, but that more needs to be done to bring about a lifting of U.S. sanctions. “Further progress in those areas and others is the only path towards lifting U.S. sanctions,” he said.
Makei acknowledged that Belarus recognized the necessity of making changes. "Belarus is probably not a most ideal country in this regard, and we do understand that we must implement some reforms in many areas, including the area of human rights — and we are doing this," he said.
Since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, Belarus has suppressed opposition and its human rights record has been widely criticized. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 called Belarus “Europe's last dictatorship.”