Fri, 20 Sep 2019

Belarus is seeking to buy U.S. oil for its refineries for the first time as it strives to diversify supplies away from its more powerful, energy-rich neighbor Russia.

The interest in U.S. crude comes as Moscow voices greater interest in pursuing a union with Belarus, a project that has remained dormant for the past 20 years but that the Kremlin wants to revive.

The state-owned Belarusian Oil Company, which is affiliated with the refiner Belneftekhim Concern, has hired David Gencarelli to lobby the U.S. government for sanctions relief so the country can buy crude.

Gencarelli will assist the company in getting a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department for the 'purchase of crude oil with delivery to the refineries in the Republic of Belarus,' according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing.

Gencarelli, who has worked as a lobbyist for nearly three decades, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Gencarelli's clients, including those in the energy industry, 'have, with this help, navigated the Halls of Congress' and federal agencies, he wrote on his social media page.

An official at the Belarusian Embassy in Washington was not immediately available for comment on August 22.

Russia has kept Belarus within its sphere of influence by offering it cheap energy and loans that have propped up its outdated economy for decades.

Refining accounts for a significant portion of Belarus's economic output and export revenue, with its refining capacity far exceeding its domestic needs.

However, Russia has talked of reducing those subsidiaries, leaving Belarus vulnerable to Russian pressure for a union.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said he wants to cut Russia's share of trade from roughly one-half to one-third. Importing U.S. oil would be one way of achieving that goal.

'This is about exploring where those red lines are' in the relationship with Russia, Jeff Mankoff, deputy director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL.

'I think they would want to have the option anyway, but it would be a form of leverage. 'You want to cut our subsidy -- we will buy our oil from the Americans,'' he said.

Lukashenka said in May during a visit to energy-rich Kazakhstan that he would like to diversify his country's oil imports. The comment came amid problems caused by contaminated Russian oil. Belarus has in the past imported some oil from Venezuela and Azerbaijan, but Russia still accounts for nearly all crude imports.

U.S. oil production has more than doubled over the past decade to a record 12.3 million barrels a day in August. The surging output enabled Washington to end a ban on crude exports in 2016.

U.S. crude was exported to Ukraine for the first time ever in July. However, Belarus's ability to tap U.S. energy is impacted by sanctions.

Washington first imposed sanctions on Minsk in 2006 to punish it for 'undermining democratic processes' in connection with unfair presidential elections. Those sanctions were widened a year later to include Belneftekhim.

The United States began to waive the sanctions against Belneftekhim for a renewable period of six months starting in 2015 after Lukashenka permitted election monitors and freed some political prisoners.

The current waiver expires on October 25. Gencarelli will seek to arrange a meeting in September or October 'with representatives of U.S. government agencies involved in a license issue decision-making process,' the filing said.

Should Gencarelli be successful, Belarus could hire him to help lobby for 'the complete lifting of sanctions against Belneftekhim Concern and its enterprises,' the filing said.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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