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A ‘path to the West’ dies in Belarus, as Moscow seeks more help in Ukraine

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, a close ally of President Alexander Lukashenko, has died at age 64.Associated Press

The death of a top official who led Belarus’s failed attempts to improve its relations with the West comes as the country faces increasing pressure from Russia to get involved in the war in Ukraine that is raging across its border.

The official, Vladimir Makei, 64, served 10 years as foreign minister of Belarus, a key geopolitical battleground between Russia and the West. He died suddenly over the weekend, Belarusian state media said without offering explanation.

Makei helped his country’s veteran dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, in a series of abortive efforts to balance Moscow’s increasingly dominant influence with outreach to the United States and the European Union. His efforts came even as the country became a staging ground for the invasion of Ukraine in February.

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His death, which Belarusian state media reported Saturday without giving any cause or the customary tributes, stirred a flurry of speculation among commentators, exiled opposition activists, and Ukrainian officials about why the diplomat, who was not known to be suffering any serious health problems, had suddenly died.

One Belarusian media outlet, Nasha Niva, said he had died at home in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, from a heart attack. But other reports, based on unconfirmed rumors, suggested he might have been poisoned.

No evidence of foul play has come to light, but the rumors reflected the climate of fear and suspicion that, according to former Belarusian government insiders, now grips even Lukashenko’s most loyal followers at a time of high tension created by the war in neighboring Ukraine.

While Belarus allowed its territory to serve as a staging ground for Russia’s invasion, it has resisted pressure from Moscow to get more involved by sending its own troops to Ukraine.

Makei had been scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, this week and travel to Poland for an annual gathering of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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Lukashenko, in power since 1994 but increasingly beholden to the Kremlin to maintain his position as Europe’s longest-serving leader, has not spoken about Makei’s death or paid tribute to his long service. The state news agency, Belta, on Saturday, published a one-line article saying that the president had offered condolences to Makei’s family.

The foreign minister’s last known official meeting was Friday with the apostolic nuncio in Minsk. A person close to the Vatican diplomatic service said the nuncio, the Vatican’s equivalent of an ambassador, did not notice anything unusual about Makei’s physical condition. The foreign minister told the nuncio he was tired but attributed this to a hectic travel schedule.

Foreign diplomats who had worked with Makei over the years remembered him as one of the few senior Belarusian officials who could engage in civil conversations with Western leaders while remaining a trusted member of Lukashenko’s inner circle.

“Makei was a member of an inner circle of Lukashenko from the very beginning, first as chief of staff and later as the foreign minister,” said Vygaudas Usackas, the former foreign minister of Lithuania, Belarus’s neighbor to the west. “But he was also trying to walk a fine line in terms of keeping options and doors open to talk to the European Union and the West in general until the very last moment.

“While understanding the dependence of the regime on Moscow, he was seeking the options of keeping the openings with the West,” Usackas added.

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That effort often infuriated Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, has made the submission of Belarus to Moscow’s will a central part of a long and, in the case of Ukraine, violent campaign to bring the Slavic lands of the former Soviet Union to heel.

Moscow was particularly displeased with a high-level US visit to Minsk in February 2020 by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. During Pompeo’s visit, in which Makei figured prominently, the two countries agreed to exchange ambassadors and also discussed the export of oil to Belarus from the United States and its allies, a move that threatened to break Russia’s energy stranglehold on the Eastern European nation.

The thaw in relations with Washington ended abruptly six months later when Lukashenko, backed by Moscow, used brutal force to end protests by hundreds of thousands of people in Minsk and other Belarusian cities after a rigged presidential election that returned him to office for a sixth term.

Just days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February, thrusting toward Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, from Belarusian territory, Makei insisted at a meeting with foreign journalists in Minsk that Russia would not invade and that its troops, ostensibly gathered in Belarus for training exercises, would soon all return home.

Valery Kaveleuski, a former Belarusian diplomat who now lives in exile and supports the opposition, said Makei’s obedience to Lukashenko meant that he had “completely lost his appeal to the West as well as his ability to influence government policy.” He predicted that his replacement “will hold a similar approach that is submissive to Russia with extremely limited space for maneuver vis-a-vis the West.”

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As foreign minister, Makei led his country’s outreach to the West, which Lukashenko had tried playing off against Russia in a bid to maintain political power at home.

A reserve colonel in the army who was fluent in English and German, Makei was a rare senior Belarusian official who could move between hard-liners in the Belarusian security services and European diplomatic circles, making him a valuable member of Lukashenko’s team, said Pavel Slunkin, a Belarusian political analyst who had worked under Makei in the Foreign Ministry.

“Through him, Lukashenko had found a path to the West,” said Slunkin, referring to Makei.