The Belarusian press has been actively debating the legacy of Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, who passed away suddenly on November 26 at the age of 65, supposedly from a heart attack. Whereas the state-run media limited itself to dispassionate obituaries, though appreciative of Makei’s patriotism and professionalism (Belarus Segodnya, December 3), the opposition-minded media displayed a panoply of opinions, including suspicions of foul play on the part of the Kremlin (Svaboda, November 30). One such opinion referred to a publication by the United States–based Robert Lansing Institute, according to which Makei’s suspected assassination was the latest warning sent by Moscow to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Svaboda, December 1).
Makei is credited with promoting Belarus’s rapprochement with the West, which culminated with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Incomparably less folksy and more introverted than Lukashenka, Makei could hardly project an image more unlike that of his boss, despite both being self-made statesmen of peasant origin, though with roots in different regions of Belarus, Makei in the west and Lukashenka in the east. A graduate of the Minsk State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages, Makei worked for the Soviet Union’s Main Intelligence Directorate rising from junior lieutenant to colonel from 1980 to 1991. In 1992–1993, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Makei studied at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna in Austria. He subsequently worked as Lukashenka’s assistant (2000–2008), his chief of staff (2008–2012) and as Belarus’s longest-serving foreign minister (2012–2022).
Overall, the opposition-minded Belarusian commentators employ two major blueprints when analyzing Makei’s contributions. According to one perspective, talking up Makei is similar to commending a waiter for what the restaurant’s chef has cooked and therefore is largely pointless (Svaboda, November 29). More thoughtful commentators, however, stick to a different formula that seeks to juxtapose the “good and evil” in Makei’s service record, whereby loyalty to the “regime” qualifies as the latter and rapprochement with the West as the former. Thus, in Yury Drakakhrust’s opinion, interpretation of his intent for rapprochement with the West largely shapes domestic attitudes on Makei’s legacy. Was it a sincere move? Or purely a camouflage only serving to perpetuate the regime? While Drakakhrust does not furnish a direct response, he does acknowledge that a political thaw to which Makei noticeably contributed is better than an adsolute freeze and that, without the thaw from 2014 to 2020, the unprecedented protest movements in August and September 2020 would never have materialized (Zerkalo, November 30).
Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reminds his audience that Makei’s self-avowed goal was to make Belarus an Eastern European version of Switzerland—that is, a neutral country. Shraibman believes that “the strength of the minister’s convictions had been overestimated, and that, for Makei, his more progressive style compared with other officials was just that: a style, a method of getting the job done, rather than an ideology. … At the critical moment, Makei’s loyalty to the Lukashenka regime proved stronger precisely because, for him, rapprochement with the West and distancing from Russia were not the end goals but merely ways of strengthening the system” (Carnegieendowment.org, November 27). On his Telegram channel, Shraibman doubles down on this “good-versus-evil” quest: “For me, the main question about Makei, which I will never answer, is whether a sincere desire to bring the country to some better state was behind his actions. … Or loyalty was not a means, but an end, and all these embroidered shirts [i.e., symbols of devotion to Belarus], thaws and promotion of neutrality were just a diligent fulfillment of the Tsar’s errand” (T.me/shraibman, November 27).
Shraibman’s unanswered question may well be misguided. After all, the same analyst once characterized the Lukashenka regime as “one of the most consolidated and adaptive authoritarian regimes in the post-Soviet space, and possibly in the world” (Carnegiaendowment.org, May 31, 2017). If so, then what truly is the system that this regime had adapted to in the first place? Apparently, Minsk adapted to the cultural and, therefore, geopolitical divide that has accompanied Belarusian nation-building since its inception at the beginning of the 20th century. Ultimately, two primary versions of Belarusian collective memory exist, with two different responses to the question: What does it means to be Belarusian (see EDM, December 20, 2019). In 2018–2019, at least three attempts were made to bridge the gap between these two interpretations: first, when a concert celebrating the centennial of the Belarusian People’s Republic was allowed in downtown Minsk (see EDM, April 12, 2018); second, when both the official red-green and unofficial white-red-white Belarusian flags fluttered side-by-side at the opening of the monument to Tadeusz Kościuszko (Brestski Kurier, May 12, 2018); and third, when a government delegation was dispatched to the reburial of Konstanty Kalinowski’s remains in Vilnius, Lithuania—Kalinowski having been the leader of an anti-Russian uprising in 1863–1864 (see EDM, December 22, 2020). The so-called soft Belarusization and the abrupt termination of the Russian ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich—because he interfered in Belarus’s internal affairs all too vigorously—also took place (see EDM, April 26, 2019). It is more than likely that Makei contributed in some fashion to all the above.
Moreover, Makei tried his best to keep channels of communication with the West open, even after punitive Western sanctions were imposed on Belarus (see EDM, April 25). And he forewarned the West that pushing too hard against the Lukashenka regime would be counterproductive, as the regime and its social base are stronger than they seem (Reform.by, April 22, 2021). Therefore, on the basis of these observations, it appears that Makei has never been a good-hearted dreamer, at least to the level of many in the opposition. Rather, he was a keen practitioner with a knack for achieving goals within the framework established, not by him and not even by Lukashenka, but rather by the course of Belarusian history itself. And it is in this realist role that Makei deserves praise.
Who will ultimately succeed Makei remains an open question. No doubt, a competition between hard-liners and liberals is already taking place, one hard-liner claimant undoubtedly being Andrei Savinykh, who currently chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Belarusian parliament. At this point, the liberals are keeping an understandably low profile, so it may be prudent to refrain from naming names for the time being.