Belarusian-American relations: Changes are positive, prospects are vague

Andrei Fyodarau


Relations between Belarus and the United States continue to improve. The progress is not rapid, though. Minsk displayed a genuine commitment to cooperation taking no explicit actions that could disrupt this process. As a result, a certain progress in relations between the two countries is obvious. However, this process does not seem irreversible due to a number of significant internal and external factors.


Event history

February 3: Foreign Minister of Belarus Vladimir Makei meets with Laurence Bower, Senior Vice-President of Culligan International, the world’s leader in water treatment technologies.

February 23: Business talks at the level of deputy ministers of agriculture of Belarus and the US take place in Washington.

February 26–28: Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, visits Minsk again to meet with Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Makei, representatives of civil society, the political opposition and relatives of political prisoners.

May 14: A delegation of the Foreign Ministry of Belarus meets with officers of the Department of State in Washington to address human rights issues.

May 18–25: A Belarusian delegation headed by Minister of Agriculture and Food Leonid Zayats goes to the United States.

May 25–29: A Belarusian delegation visits Washington to exchange experience and national practices in combating human trafficking.

June 10: US President Barack Obama extends the sanctions against Belarus imposed in October 2004 by the US Congress under the Belarus Democracy Act for one more year.

June 28: The Belarusian Football Federation and the US embassy consider cooperation possibilities.

June 9: General Motors and Belarusian JV Unison sign an agreement on SKD assembly of Chevrolet Tahoe cars.

August 2–4: A group of US congressmen meets with Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk.

August 24: The United States welcomes the release of six political prisoners in Belarus.

September 11: Vladimir Makei meets with Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy.

October 12: The Department of State praises the peacefulness of the presidential election in Belarus thus expressing disappointment over the unfree and unfair campaign.

October 13: Foreign Minister Makei meets with head of the American Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation Mikhail Morgulis and his deputy Mark Bazalev.

October 29: The US Treasury reports that sanctions against a number of Belarusian enterprises are extended until April 30 2016. The sanctions get less severe.

November 4–6: US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Bridget Brink and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Berschinski visit Minsk.

November 13: Vladimir Makei meets with Jamestown Foundation President Glen E. Howard.

December 13–18: A delegation of the US scientific community takes part in a Belarusian-American seminar on scientific and technical cooperation in Minsk.

December 16: Washington hosts a regular meeting as part of the Human Rights Dialogue.

Tactical rapprochement continues...

Considerable quantitative and qualitative changes that have occurred in bilateral relations in the American direction are obvious if we compare the history of events in 2015 with that of the previous year. The early 1990s, when so many contacts in various fields from high politics to football were a matter of course, just come to mind.

Perhaps most striking is the fact that Belarusian officials voiced almost no criticism of the United States for the first time over the past two decades. On the contrary, America’s role and positive developments in bilateral relations were emphasized regularly in public speeches, including those made at the highest level.

This quite unusual (to put it mildly) situation was first marked on January 29. At a meeting with Belarusian and foreign journalists, Alexander Lukashenko said that Belarus felt no pressure on the part of the United States and that both countries made a series of unannounced contacts. “The Americans never pressurized us, especially at this time ... There is certain inertia, yes ... But no clobbering anymore... We have agreed on many things. We have implemented our agreements and so did they. We do not disclose everything. We do not publish everything, you know. We raised questions about some businesses under the sanctions. They lifted some of them. We did not make PR stunts in this respect,” Lukashenko said.1

The very next day, at a conference of the US Atlantic Council on the Eastern Partnership Program, Belarus’ Charge d’Affaires to the US Pavel Shydlouski admitted problems with human rights in Belarus and threats to Belarus’ sovereignty and asked to lend a “helping hand.”2

In an interview to Bloomberg on March 31, Lukashenko said he was concerned that the United States “was not openly engaged” in the peace talks on Ukraine in Minsk, because, in his opinion, “stability in Ukraine could not be achieved without the Americans.”3

On the same day, Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Alexander Guryanov said that Belarus sees trade and investment cooperation with the US “as a priority”, as “the Belarusian side is interested in the access to the solid and capacious American market for Belarusian producers and the ability to attract investment, promote industrial cooperation and obtain loans.”

On May 19, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told The Washington Post about a so-called “list of small steps” drawn up jointly with the Department of State. According to the minister, those steps almost had been made, and “the next phase was on the way to take the bilateral relations to a new level.”4

Even the extension of the US sanctions by Barack Obama was taken calmly in Minsk unlike the previous years. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s press office only said that it made no sense to criticize this decision, because despite the disagreements, including the fundamental ones, a certain improvement of the Belarusian-American relations has been obvious to all lately.”

Finally, at a meeting with a delegation of US congressmen held August 3, Lukashenko stated that “Belarus has been and will be interested in the maintaining of full-scale cooperation with the United States.”5

Against this seemingly favorable background, Minsk’s flat refusal to the American proposal to increase the staff of the two embassies to the pre-crisis size and, consequently, to bring the diplomatic representation back to the level of ambassadors stroke a discordant note. Also, it is strange that no response followed the alleviation of sanctions against nine Belarusian companies, which were allowed to conduct transactions. This probably happened because assets of those companies remained frozen.

As concerns economics, intensive contacts in the field of agriculture and one more attempt to launch the assembly of American vehicles (this time by General Motors) are among the events that inspire hope.

However, historically, such expectations are not always been met. For example, Belarus obviously hoped that after the sanctions against the Belarusian Potash Company were lifted a year before, the BPC would resume supplies of potash fertilizers to the United States and increase the turnover significantly. However, although the first shipment of fertilizers passed customs clearance procedures in the US in February, mutual trade was not boosted.

Since both sides provide very different information on the mutual trade turnover, it makes sense to view the data separately. According to the National Statistics Committee of Belarus,6 in 2015, the trade turnover with the United States amounted to USD 568 million (527.6 million in 2014). Exports totaled 122 million and imports 445 million, the trade deficit being down from 428 to 323 million.

According to the US Department of Commerce,7 the trade turnover decreased from 225 to 217 million dollars. Belarus’ exports amounted to 157.8 million (131.4 million in 2014) and imports stood at 59.3 million (91.4 million in 2014.). The surplus was reported at 98.5 million. It is hard to explain this difference. Anyway, it is clear that the volume of trade with the world’s leading economy remains negligible regardless of the calculation methods.

Moreover, there are serious doubts that the business cooperation can be dramatically expanded in the foreseeable future. The main obstacle is that even if the international relations are rectified to the maximum, large companies will not go somewhere unless there is a proper businesses environment. Everyone knows that the Belarusian leadership strongly opposes any economic reforms, which could create such environment like nothing else.

... but strategic disagreements are too deep

Antagonism between Minsk and Washington continues to persist when it comes to some important political aspects. Fundamentally different views on democratic liberties and human rights are among them.

Presently, these contradictions are put on a back-burner, but they can top the agenda again at any moment. There are two basic prerequisites for that. Firstly, since there is a real war with thousands of victims right across the border, the Belarusians, who are not too prone to political activism even without that, have practically ceased to show any inclination to protest at all now, so the government no longer needs to act in the usual brutal manner that has resulted in a certain mitigation of the position of the West, including that of the United States.

However, secondly, the rapid drop in the living standards in the country can lead to mass manifestations of popular discontent and the regime will certainly be trying to suppress it in the way it usually resorts to. This will inevitably cause a negative reaction of Washington and bring back the rigid policy towards Belarus. At least US Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State Bridget Brink and Robert Berschinski, who visited Minsk in November, assured representatives of the Belarusian democratic community that such a reaction would follow immediately.8

There is one more quite possible scenario that can bring about the same result: the ongoing de-escalation of tensions between Belarus and America can fall a victim of the global confrontation. It is hard to imagine that Moscow will remain coldly indifferent seeing that its partner in all post-Soviet institutions is not totally loyal when it comes to its conflict with Ukraine or Turkey, especially as Russia has more than enough leverage to rap knuckles.

In particular, it is logical to assume that an escalation of the confrontation with NATO can push the Kremlin to wring consent out of Minsk to place not only one or several air bases in Belarus, including bases for strategic bombers, but also to deploy Iskander-M missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in the country. No doubt, this will not promote a better understanding between Belarus and the United States.


Contrary to pessimistic forecasts, in 2015, the relations between Belarus and the United States evolved in a positive way and almost peaked for the first time over the past two decades. This includes ongoing communication between law enforcement agencies, improving inter-regional ties, cooperation in the field of science, culture and education.

Apparently, the Belarusian leadership is guided by two considerations in aspiration to more or less normalize relations with America. Firstly, Minsk hopes to get easier access to credit resources from international financial institutions and investments. Secondly, the reaction of Minsk to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine shows deep concern about the Kremlin’s unpredictability. Belarus fears that under certain circumstances it may suffer Ukraine’s fate and hopes that the West, especially the United States, would prevent the annexation pursuing its own interests regardless of the attitude towards the Belarusian leadership.

The White House is apparently not averse to take advantage of the situation, although it hardly believes that Minsk will distance itself from Moscow under the current regime. The United States is not inclined to see Belarus as a serious element of the containment strategy in relation to Russia.

America is also interested in avoiding security issues that may arise in Belarus, which has proved itself quite a reliable partner in terms of combating the illegal migration, human trafficking and smuggling of arms and illegal drugs.

Nevertheless, it looks like Belarus and the United States have almost hit the ceiling in their rapprochement. Moreover, there is no guarantee that a return to the old confrontation is impossible given the domestic problems and the aggravation of the overall situation in the region, so we cannot rule out the possibility that anti-Americanism will once again prevail in the foreign policy of Belarus.