Belarus strongman offers 'new chapter' in rare talks with US

Tatiana KALINOVSKAYA
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (L) with US National Security Advisor John Bolton -- the highest-ranking US visit to Belarus in two decades (AFP Photo/Sergei GAPON )

Minsk (AFP) - Belarus's strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday he was looking to open a "new chapter" in ties with Washington as he welcomed the White House national security advisor for rare talks in Minsk.

Lukashenko met with John Bolton as the aide to President Donald Trump embarked on the latest leg of his tour of ex-Soviet countries that was sure to ruffle feathers in Moscow.

The Belarusian president, a crucial ally of Russia's Vladimir Putin, said he hoped the visit would mark a turning point after years of distrust.

"Since the start of the deterioration of our relations with the United States, we have constantly proposed turning this bad page and opening a new chapter in our relations," Lukashenko said.

He said Bolton's visit would help "create the foundation for future relations".

Belarusian state news agency Belta said the talks lasted more than two hours.

The pair discussed a range of issues but did not make any concrete decisions, the agency quoted Bolton as saying.

Often dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship", Belarus has been the target of Western sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections.

Moscow remains a close ally however, and speculation has swirled for years of unification with Russia.

The idea has been put forward again since Putin's re-election last year, with some seeing unification with Belarus as a way for the longtime Russian leader to circumvent his country's constitutional term limits.

Lukashenko, a Soviet-era collective farm chief who become Belarus's first post-independence president, has pushed back at the idea of unification.

- Russian 'weak spots' -

It was unclear whether Bolton and Lukashenko had discussed sanctions, which the US eased in 2016. The European Union dropped its sanctions on Belarus in what it said was a bid to encourage progress on human rights.

But the Belarusian authorities have ramped up efforts to control media since anti-government demonstrations in 2017, with independent journalists and activists facing pressure and harassment.

Bolton's visit to Minsk comes after a meeting with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev on Wednesday.

The US advisor stressed Ukraine's "territorial integrity" in the face of its conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the country's east.

Earlier Thursday Bolton met with the president and prime minister of Moldova, where he said the US would continue working with the former Soviet republic in defence and the economy.

Moldova recently formed a new government made up of an unusual coalition of pro-European and pro-Russian forces, following months of political turmoil.

"We discussed a wide range of questions relating to bilateral ties, and noted how these had strengthened after a peaceful transfer of power in June this year," Moldovan President Igor Dodon said.

Analysts said Bolton's trip was aimed at probing for "weak spots" on Russia's borders.

"The United States is likely to search for openings to increase its influence in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova," US geopolitical think-tank Stratfor said.

It was the highest-ranking US visit to Belarus in two decades, Stratfor said. The last US ambassador to Minsk left the country in 2008 in a spat over sanctions.

"While Belarus remains firmly within Russia's orbit, the countries' recent spats over oil supplies may have created an opening for the United States to attempt to expand economic and energy ties," Stratfor added.