Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei gave an interview to several non-state news organizations, including Tut.by, Euroradio, Nasha Niva and the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (Tut.by, October 17). During the interview, Makei was repeatedly asked whether or not the ongoing integration talks with Russia would lead to political integration as well as economic—in other words, whether or not Belarus risks sacrificing its sovereignty. Makei categorically denied the possibility of the latter and underscored that Russian and Belarusian government experts work exclusively on economic topics. The entirety of their work is expected to culminate on December 8, when the two presidents will meet in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the so-called Union State of Russia and Belarus and sign the agreements intended to deepen economic integration. In response to the question of why there is any need for the Union State in the first place, Makei replied that the majority of people in Belarus approve of its existence.
Makei acknowledged that the Russia-Belarus agreement concerning the mutual recognition of visas issued to citizens of third countries is not yet signed because the Belarusian side is not satisfied with how Russia limits the crossing of its border with Belarus by those citizens. At present, they are only allowed to cross into Russia via a few highways. He also acknowledged the high level of Belarusian economic dependency on Russia and conceded that reaching Minsk’s goal of equal distribution of Belarus’s trade exchange between Russia, the European Union and faraway countries (with one-third of that exchange assigned to each of the three) is a distant goal.
The country’s top diplomat denied that the postponed visit by Federica Mogherini, the outgoing High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, had anything to do with signing the visa simplification agreement with the EU. Brussels allegedly procrastinated on the date of the visit, so when the date was finally conveyed to Minsk, it appeared that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka would not be available on that day. As for the aforementioned agreement, it is ready, Makei assured, though not all bureaucratic procedures on the EU side have been implemented yet; Belarus, by contrast, is ready to sign the agreement at any time.
Makei told journalists he expects that significant political and business agreements will be signed during Lukashenka’s upcoming (November 12) visit to Austria and acknowledged that the candidacies of the future Belarusian ambassador to the United States are already under consideration. Also, it may well be that the arrival of ambassadors to Washington and to Minsk will not be synchronous.
Other topics discussed during the interview included the possible abolition of capital punishment, the Belarusian language in public life, and the de-Sovietization of street names in Minsk. On capital punishment, Makei does not, in principle, reject the possibility of a political decision solicited by the EU even though Belarusians are in favor of retaining the death penalty. However, he suggested that on many counts, the attitude of the EU itself toward Belarus is quintessentially political, too, and the European bloc does not budge to change it.
On the issue of language, Makei considers Belarusian his and his family’s native language but does not support any enforcement to implant Belarusian into public life. During the interview, Makei responded in Belarusian to the questions formulated in that language, and in Russian to questions asked in Russian.
As for changing the names of streets in Minsk, including Lenin Street, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located, Makei suggested this is the prerogative of city authorities, to which citizens may address a corresponding petition. “Could you please petition the city administration to name one of Minsk streets after Vassyl Bykau (Bykov)? They will certainly not say no to you,” suggested one of the interviewers. Bykau (1924-2003) was a famous Belarusian writer—but he was not on good terms with President Lukashenka.
The fact that Makei dignified the opposition media with a long interview suggests a recognition of diverging opinions, at least on the part of the foreign minister. As such, it should be seen as a positive development when it comes to the maturation of Belarusian politics.