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Pompeo visits Belarus as Minsk's ties with Moscow fray

MINSK (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Belarus on Saturday, seeking to “normalize” ties at a time when relations between Minsk and its traditional ally Russia are under strain.

The United States and the European Union have been frequent critics of authoritarian rule and the human rights record in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has been in office since 1994.

But Western powers have lifted most sanctions on Belarus since Lukashenko released political prisoners and showed more tolerance for political opposition.

Ties also improved after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula that Belarus refused to recognize. Belarus and the United States plan to bring back ambassadors to their respective countries after a 10-year hiatus.

Pompeo, the most senior U.S. official to visit in more than two decades, said at a meeting with Lukashenko that Washington supported the independence of Belarus while being aware of Minsk’s longstanding ties to Russia.

“There’s a long history with Russia. It’s not about picking us between the two. We want to be here,” he said.

Washington would appoint a new ambassador to Minsk soon, Pompeo said, adding that the United States would continue to push for human rights reforms while also fostering closer economic ties.

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Russia sees Belarus as a buffer zone between it and the West, and it has helped prop up Lukashenko with loans and energy subsidies. But it started to scale back that help last year.

Relations soured after the two sides failed to agree on an oil supply contract for this year.

The row fed into a broader dispute between Moscow and Minsk in which Lukashenko has accused the Kremlin of trying to bully Belarus into a union with Russia.

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

“It is very good that you, after all kinds of misunderstandings in relations between Belarus and the United States, absolutely baseless misunderstandings ... you risked coming to Minsk to look at this country,” Lukashenko told Pompeo.

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In an apparent joking reference to the West’s characterization of him as a dictator, Lukashenko told Pompeo: “Our dictatorship is different, in that everybody is resting on Saturday and Sunday, and the president works.”

Lukashenko has said he held talks with the United States and other countries to find alternative oil supplies. Moscow suspended supplies to refineries in Belarus from Jan. 1, though it partially restored them on Jan. 4.

“The United States wants to help Belarus build its own sovereign country. Our energy producers stand ready to deliver 100% of the oil you need at competitive prices,” Pompeo said at a meeting with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.

“Your nation should not be forced to be dependent on any one partner for your prosperity or for your security.”

In the run-up to Pompeo’s visit, a senior official in President Donald Trump’s administration had said:

“This is an era of great power competition and an opportunity to compete for influence.”

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Frances Kerry and Clelia Oziel