MINSK, Belarus (AP) — U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser visited Belarus Thursday, receiving an enthusiastic welcome from its autocratic leader who has faced Western criticism over the nation’s democratic record.
John Bolton met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the nation of 10 million with an iron hand for a quarter century, showing little tolerance for dissent and independent media.
Lukashenko warmly greeted Bolton, saying that Belarus is ready to “turn a new page” in relations with Washington. “We haven’t seen such high-ranking figures here for a long time, which makes your visit historic,” he said.
The Belarusian leader asked Bolton to deliver presents to Trump and his wife — a navy officer’s dagger for the president and a linen tablecloth with napkins for the first lady. He added that he was a “fan” of Trump ahead of the 2016 election and was glad that he won.
Lukashenko also gave gifts to Bolton — a box of chocolate and a book about Belarusian folk art.
The U.S. and the European Union have continuously criticized Belarus for its crackdown on the opposition and flawed elections and introduced sanctions against Lukashenko’s government. Some of those penalties have been lifted in recent years as Lukashenko, who was once dubbed Europe’s last dictator, has sought to improve his nation’s rights record.
Speaking after the talks that lasted for three hours instead of a planned hour-long meeting, Bolton said it offered “an excellent opportunity to discuss several very important matters — regional security and bilateral cooperation.”
“History does not stand still,” Bolton said. “A fair amount of time has passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The geopolitical situation has changed. It is changing even as we are talking. Therefore, there is a regional agenda. There are also matters related to some faraway countries that also have an impact on the situation here.”
Russia is Belarus’ main sponsor and ally, but the two nations have a slew of trade disputes. Lukashenko has won concessions from Moscow in the past by raising the prospect of a shift toward the West, and a meeting with Bolton offered him a chance to use the same tactic.
Last fall, Russia introduced higher prices for its oil supplies, dealing a heavy blow to Belarus, which has been making hefty profits from the export of oil products made from cheap Russian crude. Lukashenko has criticized the price hike as part of Moscow’s efforts to persuade his country to abandon its independence.
Russia and Belarus signed a union treaty in 1997 that envisaged close ties, but stopped short of forming a single state. Some in Belarus fear that the Kremlin may now contemplate a full merger. Lukashenko has said that the two countries could more closely integrate their economies, but emphasized that Belarus would remain independent.
Asked about the possibility of Belarus’ merger with Russia, Bolton replied that Belarusians don’t want it.
“The question is what the people of Belarus want,” he told reporters. “I think they want independence.”