U.S. says wants to work for better ties with Belarus

MINSK (Reuters) - Ex-Soviet Belarus moved a small step closer to the West on Friday with a visit by the most senior U.S. official since Minsk ordered Washington’s envoy out over a year ago.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Gordon held talks with presidential officials -- though not veteran President Alexander Lukashenko, whom the West had accused for years of crushing human rights.

“During discussions with Belarussian government officials, he (Gordon) stressed the U.S. desire to continue to engage Belarus in a mutual effort to improve bilateral relations,” a statement from the U.S. embassy said.

Belarussian state agency BelTA cited the president’s office as saying “the two sides agreed to keep in regular contact” after Gordon met top administration official, Vladimir Makey.

The comments by both sides moved Minsk and Washington closer to solving the issues of U.S. sanctions and the return of the envoy. That may irritate Belarus’s former Soviet master Russia, which sees Minsk as belonging to its sphere of influence.

Lukashenko has taken steps toward the West in the past 18 months after rowing with Russia over gas prices. Last August, he released the last of what the West called political prisoners.

The EU has cautiously praised Minsk for this and suspended a travel ban on Lukashenko who then broke his years-long isolation from Western Europe with a visit to Italy.

But so far, Washington had made no similar moves. It has sanctions in place on some Belarussian companies including Belneftekhim, an oil products group, which brings in a large portion of the country’s foreign currency earnings.

Belarus asked the U.S. envoy to leave in March 2008, arguing Washington had tightened the sanctions. The United States denied this and Gordon had said the two issues were not linked. Minsk’s overtures to the West have irked Moscow. Russia is pressuring Belarus to recognize the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a move the EU has made clear would unwind their rapprochement.

Writing by Sabina Zawadzki