The Washington Post met with Belarusan Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei in Minsk, Belarus, shortly before he departed for a European Union summit where leaders were discussing how to improve ties with former Soviet nations. What follows are excerpts of the interview.
Q: Should Belarus develop its relations more with the West or with Russia?
Makei: We do not think you should ask the question “either-or.” The question should be: You have to be with both. The logic of our activities is that there should be cooperation, not confrontation. So we want to cooperate with all sides of the world, and not confront East, South, West and North. So to answer your question, where’s the future, whether it’s with Russia or the West, we want to be friends with everybody. And the future of Belarus will depend on the Belarusan people.
Is it a threat to Russia if you improve your ties with Europe?
We are making our contribution to stability, and we are not the reason for conflict. We are convinced that we will have future development with Europe in all fields. Yes, unfortunately there is a problem, and I hope it’s temporary and that we will be able to solve these problems. But our relations with Europe should not interfere with the strengthening of relations with Russia. We are not going to be friends with Europe and forsake Russia.
Let’s be sincere. Europe cannot replace Russia for us, at least not today. We understand that in difficult times, we will always be with Russia. And Russia has helped us when we have had problems in various spheres. So we are very close and we understand that we will support each other in difficult situations. So for Russia, Belarus is important as a factor. But that doesn’t mean that Russia is going to be suspicious if we develop normal relations with the European Union. All parties, looking at the Ukrainian crisis, are interested in having a zone of stability and not a zone of conflicts.
Today, in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, we should talk about securing and strengthening the sovereignty of Belarus and other countries. And political sovereignty and independence is impossible without economic sovereignty and independence. And we talk to our partners about this. We are interested in having good trade and economic relations with the European Union. And we are not just talking about it, but we are taking certain measures.
Is Belarus threatened by what is happening in Ukraine?
We are not afraid that somebody wants to invade us. But we do not want an economic collapse to happen here.
How have Western sanctions against Russia and Russian sanctions against the West affected Belarus?
It’s all together. It’s the Ukrainian crisis, the European sanctions against Russia, and then the Russian embargo against the West.
We feel the press of the sanctions. Our position is that we are categorically against sanctions as a way to settle interstate scores. We are convinced that sanctions will never be successful in this particular case. Russia will survive because it has lots of resources. It will survive.
Sanctions damage the economy, not just the economy of Belarus, but other countries.
We just wanted the war to be stopped far from our door. Looking at the experience of the Second World War, Belarus does not want war to break out again here in our land. And if the situation had developed dynamically, if the armed conflict had been going onward, who knows, maybe Belarus would have been involved in this conflict. So that’s why we took all possible measures not to let this conflict go on.
Are you worried that what happened in Ukraine could happen to you?
I do not see any similar threat for Belarus, and there are many reasons. We are not going to rush from one side to another, from Russia to Europe and back, like the former leadership of Ukraine. Second, we have normal management of the state and the economy. Maybe some people say it’s excessive interference of the state into the economy, but at this point, we see it as necessary.
But are you concerned about Russia?
Is it possible whether our eastern neighbor can interfere in our political processes? No, it is absolutely not possible, because we have very close friendly ties with Russia, brotherhood and neighborhood ties with Russia, and we do not make stupid decisions about the Russian language or other stupid decisions. I want to sincerely and openly say: Of course we keep track of the situation, but we are absolutely sure that nothing like this is possible in Belarus because there are no reasons for it.
How did Russia react to the decision not to recognize the annexation of Crimea?
We are an independent state, an independent country. And we build our economic and foreign policy based on the idea that we should make decisions based on the national interests of our country. So we are not going to carry out orders from the capitals of large countries, no matter where they are.
What has changed from the side of the European Union and the United States?
We see very well that the world is changing now, and we cannot face some sort of frozen situation.
We want to tell our partners that radical changes cannot happen with the help of a revolution. And not just overnight, or in a couple of days. There are a number of factors. You have to change the psychology of the people, and it takes time. You have to get used to a market economy, and you have to get used to true democracy as everybody is talking about. I always use this example: We cannot go to bed in the Soviet Union and then wake up in a very well-developed European country. It takes time.
What should we expect from the coming presidential elections?
As for the previous elections, there were complaints, but not about the results of the elections but to what happened after the elections. There was different interpretation of our European partners and here in Belarus. But in any case, in any country, those who want to break into government buildings, there are laws according to which the activities of these people should be judged.
We do not want these elections to fall in this cycle, where we have good relations before elections and bad relations after the elections.