Minsk (AFP) - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday called for "real progress" in relations between the United States and Belarus, as he met the country's president Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk.
Pompeo raised the fact that it was the first visit to Belarus, a close ally of Russia, by a US Secretary of State since 1994, when Warren Christopher accompanied then-president Bill Clinton.
"Two-and-a-half decades, that's too long, we're a bit overdue," he said at a press conference with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei following talks with the president.
After a long freeze, US has recently warmed ties with a country that is often described as Europe's last dictatorship and has been led by former collective farm director Lukashenko since 1994.
At a meeting at the capital's gleaming Palace of Independence, Pompeo told Lukashenko it had been "too long" and said Washington wants to build closer ties.
"We are confident that together we can make real progress across every dimension of our relationship," he said.
"All these things I hope you will see as a good-faith attempt to truly engage politically and diplomatically."
The Belarusian strongman told Pompeo that it was "very good that you risked coming to Minsk after various misunderstandings between Belarus and the US."
He jokingly referred his authoritarian rule as they shook hands, saying: "what makes our dictatorship different is that everyone rests at the weekend but the president works."
Pompeo is on a tour of ex-Soviet countries that began in Ukraine and will continue to Central Asian Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
- 'Ready to deliver oil' -
Washington says it wants to "normalise" relations with Minsk, while Lukashenko is seeking a counterweight in relations with giant neighbour Russia, Minsk's main ally and energy provider.
Pompeo said that the US does not want to tear Belarus away from Russia.
"We understand you're a neighbour, there's a long history with Russia, it's not about picking between the two," he said.
Nevertheless, he dangled the prospect of cheap US oil imports as Belarus recently began importing some Norwegian oil amid a row with Russia on prices.
"Our energy producers stand ready to deliver 100 percent of the oil you need at competitive prices," he said at the press conference.
"All you need to do is call us."
The US opposes Moscow's ambitions to draw Belarus even more tightly into its sphere of influence.
"The US wants to help Belarus build its own sovereign country," Pompeo told journalists.
Russia and Belarus have long had close trade and military cooperation, but the Kremlin has called for deeper integration while Lukashenko has opposed outright unification.
The US and Belarus have not exchanged ambassadors since 2008 in a row over economic sanctions, but Pompeo said he hoped the long diplomatic freeze would end soon.
"With respect to the ambassador, I hope it happens quickly," he told journalists, while declining to give precise timing.
In September, the US said the countries were preparing to exchange ambassadors in a "historic" step.
Washington imposed sanctions on Belarus in 2006 over "fundamentally undemocratic" elections, as well as political repression, detentions and disappearances.
The US eased those sanctions again in 2016, but has yet to lift them totally.
Pompeo raised "concerns we have with human rights here" when he spoke to Lukashenko and later was to meet rights activists.
At the press conference he cited "real progress" on human rights but said that for sanctions to be lifted, "further progress" was needed.
Nevertheless, he told Lukashenko he wanted to see "great American businesses" build stronger economic ties, calling Belarus a "great opportunity."
The last senior US official to visit was President Donald Trump's then-national security advisor John Bolton, who met the Belarusian leader last September.
Lukashenko said then that he was looking to open a "new chapter in our relations."