Belarus lifts a cap on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country as Minsk looks west, Foreign Policy reports.
According to the American news website, the move is seen as a significant diplomatic breakthrough with the country.
“It’s a big step. This is the beginning of a thaw,” said the unnamed U.S. official.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei informed Wess Mitchell, the U.S. State Department’s top diplomat on Europe, of the decision in a phone call on Thursday, 10 January. A State Department declined to comment, due to the ongoing federal government shutdown.
Foreign Policy notes that the step comes amid a political conflict between President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin over Russia’s plan to hike the price of oil exports.
“If the Russian leadership opts for such course and the loss of its only ally in the West, it would be their choice,” Lukashenko reportedly told his aides this week after recent talks with Putin.
Recall that the last U.S. ambassador posted to Minsk along with 30 of the 35 diplomats was ejected in 2008. This was after the United States imposed additional sanctions on Belarus, citing the country’s deteriorating human rights situation. Since then Belarus has limited the number of officials serving in the embassy to five, and later 10.
At the meeting with Wess Mitchell last October, the president declared then that Belarus could become “the most reliable, honest and sincere partner for the United States.”
Washington also made a small step towards and extended the suspension of sanctions against nine Belarusian companies for a year, rather than six months, as usual.