Main Image Credit Balancing act: former Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei was key to President Alexander Lukashenko's efforts to court the West as well as Russia. Image: Press Service of the President of the Republic of Belarus
The death of Belarus’s foreign minister signals the disruption of one of the few avenues that Minsk has for negotiation and contact with the West. The president’s choice for a replacement will indicate the likely future trajectory of the country’s foreign policy.
The foreign minister of Belarus, Vladimir Makei, died unexpectedly in late November at the age of 64. While there were suggestions that the circumstances around his death were sinister – mostly because any premature deaths of officials linked to Russia or Belarus are often framed in this way – foul play is in this case unlikely. But as one of Belarus’s most prominent officials, and one who had led Belarus’s delicate balancing act between the West and Russia, Makei’s departure may reduce opportunities for any future engagement with Belarus.
Chiefly, Makei is a loss for President Alexander Lukashenko. A loyal and long-time supporter of the president, Makei had served as his political chief of staff before holding the post of foreign minister since 2012. Makei was a permanent fixture of the team in a political system where prime ministers come and go – following mass protests against Lukashenko’s re-election in 2020, the president dismissed his government and purged many senior staff, but Makei retained his position.
Makei was key in maintaining the diplomatic balancing act that Lukashenko had sought to strike between the West and Russia. Lukashenko’s desire to maintain both a strong political, security and economic relationship with Russia, as well as cordial relations with the West – with the ultimate hope of attracting significant foreign investment from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the IMF – required an emphasis on Belarus’s purported neutrality, a message Makei sought to promote abroad.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Belarus criticised the move and did not formally recognise the territory as Russian. Led by Makei at the time, Belarus sought to position itself as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia, hosting the Minsk negotiations. This ‘neutrality’ also included Belarus offering NATO access to command centres during joint military exercises with Russia in 2017, and resisting Russia’s attempts to increase the number of agreed-upon soldiers, cautious to assuage NATO forces that this was not a precursor for a Russian incursion into Belarus – although by 2022 this ultimately did occur.
Any illusion that Makei could represent a more progressive ideological influence in Belarus was shattered after the 2020 protests in the country
Makei also manoeuvred through some of Belarus’s political frictions with Russia. In 2018, Moscow appointed Mikhail Babich, a former KGB officer and governor of Chechnya, as its ambassador to Belarus, who through his overtures to the Belarusian opposition, open criticism of Lukashenko and statements to the media suggesting Russia viewed the country as a mere region of Russia, created a diplomatic furore. Makei and the foreign ministry led the criticism of Babich’s statements as not in keeping with international diplomacy, and summarily dispatched him back to Moscow after less than a year in post.
Courting the West
In previous years, Makei maintained that Belarus was keen to develop good relations with the US as a potential trade and political partner – although not to the detriment of Belarus’s relationship with Russia. But any illusion that Makei could represent a more progressive ideological influence in Belarus was shattered after the 2020 protests in the country. The waves of protest and repressive detentions that followed could have been an opportunity for a progressive politician to align themselves with the opposition forces, but it was clear that Makei never held such an ideology, criticising the protesters as a disruptive force and suggesting that external forces were to blame for fomenting unrest. Then, as tensions between the West and Russia ratcheted up throughout 2021, in November of that year Makei delivered the message that Minsk would recognise Crimea as Russian territory after all, firmly aligning Belarus’s worldview with Russia’s.
But Belarus’s foreign policy is not straightforward, and since the Ukraine war began, Makei had spearheaded – clearly with Lukashenko’s acquiescence – efforts to engage with the West despite Belarus’s assistance of Russia’s invasion. This was for largely pragmatic purposes. He had written to the UN, demanding that sanctions on Belarus’s potash industry be eased in exchange for facilitating grain transit for Ukraine, as its ports were blocked by Russia. This attempt at blackmail was ignored.
Makei also wrote a letter to the EU in April 2022 when the Ukraine war was in its initial stages, attempting to counter international assertions about Belarus’s complicity in the war and calling for the reestablishment of dialogue between the EU and Belarus. The letter, although sent via diplomatic channels, was leaked via a journalist and the EU did not respond. The snub was clear, indicating that the EU did not view Belarus as acting independently from Russia, with whom it has also suspended dialogue. Around the same time and in a bid to appear conciliatory on human rights issues, in April 2022 Belarus released a handful of political prisoners to house arrest – which the EU had called for – although many remain incarcerated, and Makei had been at pains to emphasise that they were not released because of pressure from the EU.
The Western consensus that Belarus is a co-aggressor in the war against Ukraine means that the country’s political position cannot be regarded as neutral
Makei had apparently hoped to position Belarus as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine in the current war, upon Lukashenko’s orders. But the Western consensus that Belarus is a co-aggressor in the war, irrespective of whether the Belarusian army has been actively mobilised, means that the country’s political position cannot be regarded as neutral.
The End of Engagement?
Although Makei’s nominally ‘pro-Western’ stance was born out of pragmatism rather than political ideology, his departure does signal the disruption of one of the few avenues that Belarus has for negotiation and contact with the West.
But the entirety of Belarus’s foreign policy is not beholden to the foreign ministry. Indeed, there are others in the Belarusian administration who still advocate talks with the West, even as they criticise its values. In an interview with a state controlled news outlet on 30 November, Minister of Defence Viktar Krenin maintained that there was a need to continue to talk with the West to avoid escalation, and suggested that Belarus had been receiving signals from (unspecified) countries on their readiness to return to constructive dialogue.
For Lukashenko, the foreign policy priority must necessarily remain Russia – as the two countries’ deeper political integration through the Union State progresses at pace, and as the Belarusian economy, isolated from international supply chains, becomes ever more dependent on Russia’s.
In the coming weeks, Lukashenko’s selection for Makei’s replacement will indicate the likely direction of Belarus’s foreign policy trajectory. A military or intelligence background would suggest a ministry likely to prioritise relations with Russia, but a career diplomat from within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with some experience of negotiating with forums such as the EU, might be willing to continue the legacy of Makei’s balancing act with the West.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security