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US nominates first ambassador to Belarus in over a decade

President Donald J. Trump signs the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, in front of the South Portico of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States has named its first ambassador to Belarus in more than a decade in the latest sign of warming relations between the two countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced on April 20 that he intended to nominate career diplomat Julie Fisher, a top State Department official for Europe, to the embassy in Minsk.

Fisher previously held assignments at NATO and served in Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine. The Senate must first approve her appointment, but it’s unclear when hearings will be held as lawmakers are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and will later hit the election trail.

The United States recalled its ambassador to Minsk in 2008 when authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered a reduction of U.S. diplomatic staff in the country.

The deterioration in relations came after Washington imposed sanctions in response to human rights abuses and a political crackdown around the 2006 Belarusian presidential election. Since then, both countries’ embassies have been represented at the chargés d’affaires level.

In the first visit to Belarus by a top U.S. diplomat since 1994, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February met with Lukashenka in Minsk and said the United States sought closer ties with the country.

The rapprochement between the United States and Belarus comes as Minsk balances political and economic reliance on neighboring Russia with a desire to foster closer ties with the West.

While the United States says Belarus doesn’t need to choose between Moscow and Washington, Pompeo said in February that the United States “wants to help Belarus build its own sovereign country.”

Pompeo also said the United States would continue to push for human rights reforms while developing economic ties, including U.S. oil exports at a time Belarus has been in a long-running pricing dispute with Russia.

The row over oil comes amid a broader dispute between Moscow and Minsk in which Lukashenka has accused the Kremlin of trying to pressure Belarus into a deeper union with Russia.

The United States and Belarus first announced plans to exchange ambassadors in September 2019 when top State Department official David Hale met with Lukashenka in Minsk.

Washington, in another boost to its ties with Belarus, on January 31 omitted it from a list of countries under a travel ban after earlier signaling its possible inclusion.

The United States and the European Union also eased sanctions on Belarus in 2016.