In Feb 2014, Belarus’s relations with the West suddenly began to improve. The Europeans stopped terming Alexander Lukashenko as “Europe’s last dictator” but still refrain from shaking hands with him. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei has undertaken the role of the key mediator in this process. A former spy, he has been steadily guiding his country out of isolation since 2008. But his efforts are mostly bad for Minsk’s relations with Moscow.
Most of the European ambassadors regard Makei as the second man in Belarus and know him as an experienced Soviet-time spy. They describe him as a charming, smiling and shrewd diplomat. In the early 1990s, Makei studied at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. He is fluent in English but prefers negotiating in Russian. For some of Belarusian oppositionists and bureaucrats he is an icon of liberalism and one of the key pretenders to the throne.
According to WikiLeaks, during a meeting with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Ušackas in 2009, Makei said that the Belarusian authorities were planning to change their policy. Later he complained to the U.S. charge d’affaires of the Kremlin’s pressure and asked the West to lift its sanctions in exchange for Belarus’s “multi-vector policy.” He also told some EU ambassadors that the Kremlin had offered Belarus a loan in exchange for its consent to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Belarus was ready to reject the money and to take $3bn from the West for independence from Russia. During the meetings, Makei said that Russia would never be a true ally for Belarus and would always pressure it, while in the EU there was an atmosphere of true friendship and partnership.
In 2010, Makei announced a plan to organize a fair presidential election in Belarus but Lukashenko put an end to that plan when he arrested his rivals and brutally dispersed peaceful demonstrators.
In 2012, Makei was appointed as Foreign Minister to improve Belarus’s relations with the West. The coup in Ukraine helped him in the matter. In 2015, the West recognized the presidential elections and in 2016 the parliamentary elections. Makei-controlled expert centers keep reporting European and U.S. diplomats about the Russian threat to the Belarusian independence, which, according to them, may end in an Anschluss. They allege that Russia is planning to invade Belarus. In contrast, Makei does not regard NATO’s expansion as a threat to Belarus. In late 2016, he alleged that the Kremlin was forcing Lukashenko to resign. These allegations are meant for European and American politicians, who are expected to give Makei money for saving the Belarusian regime.
There are grounds to believe that Makei is plotting a Ukraine-type coup. We would like to remind you that under President Yushchenko, current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was foreign minister. Makei keeps meeting with Poroshenko and Saakashvili, with Belarusian-Ukrainian relations being not the only topic of the meetings. Over the last two years, the Belarusian leaders have sponsored the smuggling of Ukrainian goods to the Russian market. Contrary to their contract with the Russians, they keep suppling duty free oil to Ukraine. So, it was logical that the Russians cut their oil supplies.
Makei’s policy is damaging Russian-Belarusian relations and is misleading European partners, who are beginning to regard his country as a beggar and laughingstock.
Now Makei is engaged in reopening the U.S. embassy in Minsk. According to unofficial sources, it will be the biggest U.S. embassy in Eastern Europe. I wonder what might be the Americans’ reason for having such a big embassy in a country they have almost no trade with. In the meantime, Makei’s son, Vitaly, enjoys his life in New York at the Belarusian representation to the UN.
In Dec 2016, Makei’s ministry provoked three public scandals with a view to discredit Russian-Belarusian relations. During the first days of the months, the Belarusian authorities arrested three Belarusian citizens who wrote articles for the Russian press. The journalists were accused of inciting ethnic hatred. By doing this, the Belarusian authorities acted contrary to their obligations to ensure the freedom of speech and press in the Russia-Belarus Union State.
The second scandal followed a statement by former Director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies Leonid Reshetnikov concerning the Belarusian language. Makei called the Russian ambassador on the carpet and provoked a dispute on a ministerial level. In contrast, he keeps ignoring similar statements by top government officials from other states. I think that such linguistic disputes should be held during expert conferences rather than on a state level.
In late Dec 2016, Makei visited the “occupation line” – as they in Georgia call their border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia and laid a wreath on the graves of the “heroes killed in the struggle for Georgia’s territorial integrity.” Well-known U.S. senator John McCain did the same two weeks later. But the problem is that in 2008 Lukashenko vowed to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
While meeting with European and American diplomats Makei does not mention the Belarusian citizens whom he has proclaimed personas non-grata as well as the Russian citizens whom he has deported from Belarus. I think they in the West should be informed of these facts and should react to them.
In 2016, a number of Belarusian experts and I urged Makei to establish an open dialogue with Russian authorities and civil society. Sine Russian experts and government officials welcomed the initiative but Makei ignored it. While he is playing his game, the Belarusian-Russian dialogue is well underway in different forms, with the doors still being open for the Belarusian leaders.
Belarus needs to normalize its relations with the EU and the United States but not at the expense of its national interests and its ties with Russia. Lukashenko and his team have gone too far here. So, his successors will have to work hard to regain the confidence of their allies.
Dmitry Bolkunets (Higher School of Economics) specially for EADaily