The United States said Friday a proposed deployment of Russian short-range missiles in Belarus would not be helpful to regional security. The State Department also acknowledged another round of high-level U.S. contacts with Belarus, aimed at improving the strained relationship. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
Officials here are expressing concern about the prospect of Russian missile deployments in Belarus, while also confirming new U.S.-Belarusian political contacts.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said he is having talks with Moscow on putting Russian Iskander missiles in Belarus - the same weapon Moscow is threatening to place in its Kaliningrad Baltic enclave to counter the proposed U.S. missile defense system in Europe.
Mr. Lukashenko, in a Wall Street Journal interview Friday, said he absolutely supports the Russian plan for Kaliningrad, and said Moscow has also proposed putting some of the highly-accurate short-range weapons in Belarus.
The Belarusian leader said acquiring Iskander missiles, which have a 400-kilometer range and include some Belarusian components, are in his country's defense plans even if no early deployment deal with Moscow is reached.
Asked about the comments here, State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood reiterated that the proposed U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic is to counter a perceived Iranian missile threat. He said deploying new missiles in Europe because of it is just not helpful to regional stability:
"As we've said over and again, this missile defense system is not targeted at the Russians, Belarus or anybody. It's basically designed to prevent, and deal with rogue threats, rogue missile threats, from the Middle East region, particularly from Iran. So it's nothing new with regard to our policy," Wood said.
Mr. Lukashenko told The Wall Street Journal that while he sides with Moscow on the missile issue and in its dispute with Washington over the recent Georgia conflict, he would like to have closer ties with the West.
Spokesman Wood said U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs David Merkel had talks in New York late last month with the deputy chief of the Belarusian presidential bureau, Natalia Petkevich, a close Lukashenko adviser.
It was the second such high-level discussion since August aimed at exploring better ties between the Minsk government and Washington.
Relations have long been strained over Mr. Lukashenko's authoritarian governing style and human rights abuses. But they have warmed somewhat following the recent release of three high-profile detainees considered to have been the last Belarusian political prisoners.
Spokesman Wood said the United States wants better relations, but for that to occur, Belarus must adhere to international human rights obligations and standards.
A senior U.S. official said the September parliamentary elections in Belarus, heavily criticized by international monitors for a faulty vote-count, were a disappointment.
The same official said the release of U.S. citizen Emanuel Zeltser, jailed in Belarus since March on industrial espionage charges, would be a good step toward improving the relationship.
The State Department has frequently urged the release of Zeltser, who is believed to be in ill health, on humanitarian grounds.