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 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, which 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.

“We are not talking about a choice between us and them (Russia). We are talking about diplomatic relations,” Pompeo said, via a translator.

Washington would appoint a new ambassador to Minsk soon, he added.

Relations between Belarus and Russia 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.

In another boost to ties, Washington omitted Belarus 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.

Lukashenko has said he held talks with the United States and other countries to supply oil as an alternative to Russia.

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

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

“And we are hearing from the Belarusians language about how they want to look at new opportunities … and this will give us an opportunity to talk about that,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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.

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

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