Published in sratfor.com on 21 August
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko dismissed Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov on 20 August, replacing him with former head of the presidential administration Vladimir Makey. Such a reshuffling is not unusual, but the timing indicates that Belarus probably will distance itself further from the European Union. The appointment of Makey — one of the most influential figures within Lukashenko’s regime — could also affect Belarus’ and Lithuania’s relationship, which is more nuanced than Belarus’ relationship with the other European countries.
Shake-ups among top officials in Minsk are common. The Belarusian political system is very centralized under Lukashenko, who wants to make sure high-level officials do not get too powerful or influential and thus frequently reshuffles (but rarely dismisses) them. For example, Lukashenko replaced the prime minister and defense minister in December 2010, and deputy ministers are reshuffled on a more regular basis. Makey has held many of the top posts within the Lukashenko regime, including presidential aide and head of European cooperation within the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.
However, the timing and nature of Makey’s appointment as foreign minister makes the shift more significant. The appointment comes at a time when Lukashenko has made numerous changes to the country’s top political and security personnel after the teddy bear airdrop incident in July. After a Swedish public relations firm penetrated Belarusian airspace using a small plane and dropped pro-democracy and anti-Lukashenko messages tied to small teddy bears, Lukashenko admonished the security breach and demoted Belarus’ air force and border security chiefs. Lukashenko also dismissed Sweden’s ambassador and further alienated his country from the European Union, which had enacted sanctions against Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials after the country’s hotly contested election and the ensuing crackdown on opposition protests.
Like many top Belarusian officials, Makey prioritizes national security over any political or economic opening to the West. Given the country’s particularly strained relations with the European Union right now, Makey’s appointment represents a hardline stance concerning the Europeans and likely will worsen relations between Minsk and Brussels.
One country that could be uniquely affected by Makey’s appointment is Lithuania. Lithuania is a major supporter of the Belarusian opposition and was the site from which the Swedish plane took off to perform the teddy bear drop. But Lithuania is also a significant economic and trade partner for Belarus, and the Lithuanian government has spoken against increasing sanctions against Belarus in order to avoid further distancing the country from Europe.
Makey is rumored to have a close working relationship with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and surprised many when he paid an unofficial visit to Lithuania in January 2011, shortly after the initial rupture in relations between Belarus and the European Union. His appointment as foreign minister could prompt a re-examination of the relationship between Minsk and Vilnius and possibly increase the political dialogue between the countries.
Makey was also a proponent of a creating a road map to normalize relations between Belarus and the West in 2009, though that was when Belarus was trying to balance more between Russia and the European Union. The political environment has changed since then, and though Makey’s appointment could affect diplomatic relations with Vilnius, in a broader strategic sense and on matters of security, Belarus can be expected to continue clashing with Lithuania and its European partners.