MINSK -- The United States and Belarus plan to resume hosting ambassadors after an 11-year hiatus amid mutual growing concern over Russia's foreign policy.
'It is my honor to announce that we are prepared to exchange ambassadors as the next step in normalizing our relationship,' U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said on September 17 during a meeting with Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey in Minsk.
The announcement followed Hale's meeting with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus for a quarter-century.
The country was put under sanctions by the United States and the European Union in the wake of a crackdown that followed the 2006 presidential election.
The sanctions prompted Belarus to recall its ambassador from the United States in 2008 and the U.S. ambassador in Minsk left the country shortly afterward.
The two countries began to reconsider their frosty relationship following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the Kremlin's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, raising concerns about Belarus's territorial integrity.
Moscow has been seeking to revive two-decade-old plans of a union state between Russia and Belarus that Lukashenka has been reluctant to embrace.
In a veiled swipe at Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian state media, Lukashenka said the United States wasn't the only country responsible for the world's problems, as is of often portrayed.
'We clearly understand that it doesn't happen in life that one person is responsible and all others are as pure as snow,' the Belarusian leader said, according to the presidential website.
Lukashenka added he would not allow intermediate-range missiles to be deployed in Belarus after the collapse of a landmark arms-control treaty between Moscow and Washington for the purposes of 'complicating' the situation in Europe.
Belarus is heavily dependent on cheap Russian energy to keep its economy afloat. Moscow is taking steps to increase the price of the crude oil it sells to Belarus.
Last month, Belarus hired a Washington-based firm to help lobby the White House for an end to sanctions so it could import U.S. crude.
Shortly thereafter, then-U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton made the first visit by a high-ranking U.S. official to Belarus in decades.
The United States 'remains committed to a sovereign, independent Belarus with a prosperous future for the next generation,' Hale said.
He added that Washington 'also welcomes Belarus's increased cooperation on issues of nonproliferation, border security, economic cooperation, and information sharing on matters of shared security.'
Hale, however, insisted that the United States was not asking Belarus to choose between Moscow and the West.
The U.S. official also said that Belarus needed to improve its record on democracy to bring a 'further easing of sanctions.'
Belarus will hold parliamentary elections in November and a presidential election next year.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036