SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit today to one of the most repressive countries in Europe, the former Soviet republic of Belarus. The leader of that country has been in power for a quarter-century. So why is the Trump administration looking to improve ties with him now? Well, if you look at Belarus on a map, you can see why it's so important for geopolitics and energy markets, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Daniel Fried was the top U.S. diplomat for Europe during the George W. Bush administration, relations with Belarus were on a downward spiral. The government was harassing U.S. diplomats, and the U.S. was imposing sanctions to punish Belarus for its poor human rights record.
DANIEL FRIED: Relations were terrible. They threw out a lot of our people. The embassy's been operating on a - with a skeleton staff for some time.
KELEMEN: Now, after more than a decade, the U.S. and Belarus plan to exchange ambassadors. Fried, who's with the Atlantic Council, says the human rights situation is not any better. But President Alexander Lukashenko and the U.S. government are both wary of the Kremlin's attempt to form a union between Russia and Belarus.
FRIED: If Belarus maintains its sovereignty, even under a local despot, it's not game over. While there's life, there's hope, and the future could turn out differently. But if it is absorbed by Russia, it is game over for the next epic.
KELEMEN: Pompeo, who traveled to Belarus from Ukraine, the country at the center of Trump's impeachment, made a point of meeting a few human rights activists in Minsk. Sofya Orlosky of Freedom House is keeping close tabs on that. She does support exchanging ambassadors.
SOFYA ORLOSKY: It really bodes well for the people of the United States and Belarus. But at the same time, what we're seeing is that the U.S. has become softer on issues of human rights and democracy, and it's bilateral engagement with Belarus. And that's, of course, a reason for concern because things are not really getting better there.
KELEMEN: Fried takes a long view, saying the U.S. and Europe have been struggling for years with how to deal with Belarus.
FRIED: Pressure didn't work. Outreach didn't work. Let's be clear that nothing has worked with Belarus. So this administration is trying it again. My expectations are under control, and I'm not going to hit them for it.
KELEMEN: U.S. foreign policy experts inside and outside government started paying more attention to Belarus after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Belarus is right next door, and President Alexander Lukashenko, once labeled the last dictator in Europe, is playing a careful balancing act between Russia and the West, says Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation.
GLEN HOWARD: He does have a sense of humor, and he now has previously joked that he's no longer the last dictator of Europe. He said, I'm now next to last. He knows the Russian psyche, and he knows that Putin's priorities are the Slavic borderlands of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Howard, who's met Lukashenko several times, believes that Belarus wants to be neutral, like a, quote, "Slavic Switzerland." And Howard compares Lukashenko to Yugoslavia's Communist leader who resisted becoming a Soviet satellite state when Joseph Stalin was in the Kremlin.
HOWARD: Sometimes you needed a person like Tito to stand up to a Stalin, like Putin. In this case, you've got someone, Lukashenko, who's becoming a Tito that is guarding our eastern flank against this Russian encroachment on a region that's very, very strategically important.
KELEMEN: Howard says the U.S. is trying to avoid the permanent basing of Russian ground forces in Belarus, which borders three NATO countries - Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. There are also energy deals to be made. Belarus is now buying U.S. oil to be less dependent on Russia.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.