The foreign minister of Belarus, Uladzimir Makei, died on 26 November at the age of 64. He was one of the officials closest to Lukashenka and worked in senior state positions for more than 15 years. Makei became foreign minister in 2012, a time at which relations between Belarus and the European Union were in a deep crisis following the rigged 2010 presidential election and the sanctions the EU subsequently imposed on the Belarusian authorities for human rights violations – including on Makei himself. However, just two and a half years later, his boss Aliaksandr Lukashenka was already welcoming Angela Merkel and François Hollande to Minsk. A year after that, the EU lifted most of the sanctions. This was an undoubted diplomatic success led by the now-deceased minister.
Makei was the most pro-Western politician of the entire top echelon of the Belarusian government, and many Belarusians perceived his death as a blow to the liberal wing of their country’s politics. It was this image of a “Westerner” and a “liberal” that has given rise to speculation that his death might not have been accidental. Allegedly, his passing is beneficial for Moscow, which fears another thawing of relations between Belarus and the West. His death happened against the backdrop of the upcoming OSCE summit in Warsaw, which he was supposed to attend in official status to represent Belarus. Before that he was scheduled to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who is barred from going to the summit.
Some of Makei’s former European colleagues have hinted at this in their reactions to the death. Former British ambassador to Minsk Nigel Gould Davis believes that “there may be something very sinister behind his sudden and unexplained death.” The deputy chairman of the Christian Democrat bloc in the German Bundestag, Johann Wadephul, wonders “What would he have said on the next conference of OSCE which he wanted to attend?”. Going further is the adviser to the minister of internal affairs of Ukraine, who even suggests that Makei could have been poisoned. Literally a day before Makei’s sudden death, the Robert Lansing Institute, citing its sources in Moscow, reported that Russia was preparing an assassination attempt on Lukashenka, and that it wanted to put in his place Stanislav Zas, who is currently the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the military alliance that includes six former Soviet states including Belarus and Russia.
The fire of suspicions is fuelled by the fact that Belarusian state propaganda greatly downplayed the significance of Makei’s death, whose story it appeared to deliberately move lower down its webpages. The news shared a line together with a weather forecast.
However, the true problem for Belarus in relation to Western countries lies much deeper than just the person of the minister. More fundamental factors are a major block to progress. There is simply no potential agenda for negotiations at the moment. For example, the EU is interested above all in questions of military security. And Lukashenka has nothing to offer Western politicians in this area. He does not control the movement of Russian troops in Belarus, he cannot stop Russia shelling Ukrainian cities from Belarus, he cannot guarantee Russia will not invade Ukraine from Belarusian territory again. And, meanwhile, Lukashenka is highly unlikely to soften his repression: doing so during the previous iteration of rapprochement with the EU ended badly for him in the form of widespread protests following the presidential election he lost.
Equally, the EU, by and large, has nothing to offer Lukashenka, so he continues to risk things with Russia. As long as Belarus helps Russia fight against Ukraine, as long as repression and human rights violations continue, there can be no talk of any “reset”. Without significant changes in Belarus, European politicians will be neither willing nor able to make a deal with the dictator. And, even if Minsk decides to release a few hundred political prisoners, this is unlikely to be enough for the EU to make huge concessions in return. The most painful sanctions against Belarus will stay. This is well understood in Belarus, and is why political prisoners remain in jail – their release will not bring the desired result.
Despite this, the identity of Makei’s replacement will not be unimportant. Firstly, who Lukashenka chooses will tell us something about the goals he has set for the foreign ministry. The pool of potential candidates includes career diplomats who may have quietly carried out orders from above but have not tarnished their reputations in the West with overly aggressive language or actions. If a career diplomat becomes the new minister, it will be much easier for a new Lukashenka envoy to obtain an audience with Western colleagues. They will feel tempted to engage with such a new person in the hope that Lukashenka will convey some important message or advantageous offer through them.
However, Russophile candidates are on the list as well. Such figures would pursue even closer rapprochement with Russia, would never consider a return to what Belarus used to term its “multi-vector foreign policy,” and would fully support Russia’s attempts to reshape the system of international relations by force.
There is a third option too, which is somebody from within Belarus’s law enforcement agencies. Since 2020, Lukashenka has surrounded himself with the security forces. They now head the government, ministries and departments, the presidential administration, and regional bodies. Like any authoritarian ruler, Lukashenka prefers devoted performers who click their heels and carry out whatever order he gives them. People in uniform are usually unfamiliar with the art of diplomacy, but this is probably not what Lukashenka is currently looking for. Belarus is already in a half-war state. It continues to increase the combat effectiveness of its army, and has commenced mobilisation procedures. Defence spending will rise by a record 53 per cent next year; Belarus has never spent so much on its army.
Whoever Lukashenka appoints foreign minister, the future of Belarusian-European relations will depend above all else on the war in Ukraine and domestic stability in Russia. That there is currently nothing to talk about does not mean there never will be again. The situation at the front is not static and will change, presumably opening the way for some progress. The EU should prepare for the moment when the sanctions pressure on the Belarusian regime finally produces results. This will be the time to make Lukashenka negotiate with his opponents – just like his Venezuelan friend Nicolás Maduro has recently done.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.