Belarus Bids Farewell to Its Top Diplomat

Architect of Minsk’s multi-vector foreign policy dies as country faces pressure from the Kremlin to step up role in Ukraine.

Belarus Bids Farewell to Its Top Diplomat

Architect of Minsk’s multi-vector foreign policy dies as country faces pressure from the Kremlin to step up role in Ukraine.

Belarus’ long-time foreign minister Vladimir Makei suddenly passed away on 27 Nov 2022.
Belarus’ long-time foreign minister Vladimir Makei suddenly passed away on 27 Nov 2022. © Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus - mfa.gov.by
Wednesday, 30 November, 2022

As hundreds of mourners queued to pay their final respects to Belarus’ long-time foreign minister Vladimir Makei, speculations mount over the sudden death of President Alexander Lukashenko’s top diplomat. Makei died on the eve of a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, at a time in which his country faces increasing pressure from the Kremlin to step up its involvement in the war in Ukraine.

“Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei has passed away suddenly,” state media Belta announced on November 27, without providing further detail. Citing its own sources, independent outlet Nasha Niva reported that 64-year-old Makei died at his home from a heart attack.

Some see the long hand of Russian intelligence services seeking to intimidate Lukashenko, who owes his grip on power to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This alliance has strengthened since August 2020, when Minsk crushed swelling popular protests against the results of a disputed presidential vote which threatened Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

Some diplomatic circles in Brussels viewed Makei as a more open and liberal official, a view that analysts in eastern Europe and former Belarussian officials reject.

“Makei role as a liberal diplomat has been massively exaggerated among EU circles. He was not a liberal,” Belarus’ former minister of culture Pavel Latushko, now in exile, told IWPR. “I personally heard him addressing Lukashenko as commander in chief in their phone calls. In reality he served Lukashenko’s goal to ease the EU sanctions against Belarus while not crossing any red line with Russia. It was the main objective of his so-called ‘multi-vector foreign policy’, but since 2020 he lost his influence, this door was locked after Lukashenko became fully dependent on Putin.”

Political scientists like Pawel Usov, who leads the Warsaw Centre for Political Analysis, noted that Makei simply “promoted the positive image of Belarus dictatorship. In reality his multi-vector policies had been orchestrated to fix Lukashenko’s reign dead, without any true intentions of liberalisation”.

In September 2022, Makei reiterated Minsk’s close alliance with Moscow in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Belarus has never promoted the war. But we are not traitors either,” he said in a speech to the UN security council. “We have allied commitments, and we are strictly following and will follow the spirit and letter of international treaties to which we are parties.”

Addressing the 77th session of the UN general assembly, Makei blamed the war in Ukraine on the West.

He argued that in the 1990s “the West selfishly offered the states of the post-Soviet space only one path, the path of its satellite” relying “on the expansion of one of the key institutions of the Cold War, the NATO military bloc”.

“The legitimate security interests of both Russia and Belarus were also ignored,” he continuing, insisting that his country had done its utmost to facilitate peace since 2014, when the Minsk agreements were adopted.

“Belarus hosted three successful rounds of Ukrainian-Russian negotiations, which opened up real prospects for bringing the conflict to an end. Unfortunately, this process has since stalled,” the foreign minister said.

Russia has used Belarus as a launch pad for attacks on Ukraine’s north, particularly in the early phase of the war, and has been pressuring Minsk on increased engagement. In April Makei wrote a confidential letter to European counterparts bargaining for lifting sanctions against Belarus in exchange for not putting Belarussian troops on the ground in Ukraine.

There have been speculations about potential action against Lukashenko but analysts consider them questionable unless the military mobilisation of Belarussians is needed to continue the war. Failing that, Lukashenko’s position seems strong.

“We are witnessing the process of accumulating Russian military means and forces in Belarus, allegedly as part of the deployment of a regional grouping of troops, which is somehow considered as preparation for a new stage of aggression. It is obvious that Lukashenka cannot counteract this in any way,Usov wrote.

Makei was due to attend the OSCE ministerial council, scheduled in Lodz on December 1.

“Historically three ministers have been dismissed by Lukashenko on their way to OSCE foreign ministers' summits. Strange coincidence,” Latushko told IWPR.

A LOYAL ALLY

Lukashenko went on foot to the ceremony hall to say goodbye to the man he had tasked in 2012 to shape and sell, the image of his regime to the world.

Lukashenko could count on Makei, who insisted that “there are no political prisoners in Belarus” and believed “if Cuba survived economic sanctions, Belarus also can”.

As Belarussians took to the street to protest to break Lukashenko’s grip on power, Makei’s eldest sons Vitaly, then a foreign ministry official, voiced criticism as well, before quitting his diplomatic career and settling in Czechia. He was notably absent at the funeral.

Up until his appointment in 2012, Makei had been Lukashenko’s chief of staff for four years. After a violent crackdown on protests in December 2010, his name was added to the list of sanctions. He managed to avoid a travel ban only when he took the post of foreign minister.

In this role, he bargaining over political prisoners to ease the sanctions blockade. Following the Eastern Partnership’s initiative to restrain Russia, the EU lifted most sanctions against the Belarussian regime despite its human rights violations.

Such a bargaining was a success and Makei was hailed as the architect of the multi-vector foreign policy, leaving channels open with both Brussels and Moscow. His efforts often infuriated the latter.

Makei was a heavyweight… diplomacy in Belarus began with him,” Valery Karbalevich, a Belarusian political scientist and Lukashenko biographer, told IWPR. “However, after the protests of 2020, the Western vector of Belarusian politics has been cut off. The position of the ministry of foreign affairs became unclear.”

Matters came to a head in August 2020 with the crackdown to tame protests across the country.  In 2021, in front of the All Belarusian People’s Assembly, Makei argued that Belarus no longer aspired to neutrality.

“The concept of multi-vectorism absolutely does not exclude the predominance of any vector,” he said in front of the meeting convened to legimitise Lukashenko’s referendum to amend the constitution. “Our priorities have been shaped by life. Russia has always been, is and will remain our strategic partner,”

Latushko noted that in late 2021 and early 2022 Makei was instrumental in allowing economic migrants and asylum seekers, largely from the Middle East and Africa, into Belarus to cross into the EU. It was Minsk’s response to a new round of sanctions imposed on the regime following the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger plane in May 2021 to arrest a Belarussian dissident. Belarus opened the door to tens of thousands of migrants, who were stuck in a humanitarian crisis on the EU external borders with Poland and Lithuania from the Belarussian side.

Makei was engaged in the supply of illegal migrants at the border of the EU and manoeuvred a hybrid war which caused numerous human casualties,” Latushko noted. “The foreign minister was the key figure in this hybrid war [as embassies] granted Belarussian visas to the migrants heading to the borders of the European Union.”

Makei‘s death closes a decade of Minsk’s decorative maneuvering between Russia and the West. It also leaves a void which can play in Moscow’s favour and increase the Kremlin’s leverage with Lukashenko to build engagement in the war raging across its border

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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