A ‘Bridge to the West’ Dies in Belarus, as Moscow Seeks More Help in Ukraine

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 Moscow to get involved in the war in Ukraine that is raging across its border.

The official, Vladimir Makei, 64, served 10 years as the 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.

Mr. Makei helped his country’s veteran dictator, Aleksandr G. 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 last February.

His death, which Belarusian state media reported on 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 Mr. 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.

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

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, right, Mr. Makei, center, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, during a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, in 2020.Credit…Pool photo by Nikolai Petrov/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Makei’s family.

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

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Foreign diplomats who had worked with Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Usackas added.

That effort often infuriated Russia, whose president, Vladimir. V. 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 American visit to Minsk in February 2020 by then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. During Mr. Pompeo’s visit, in which Mr. 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 East European nation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mr. Makei of Belarus arriving for a joint news conference in Minsk, Belarus, in 2020.Credit…Pool photo by Kevin Lamarque

The thaw in relations with Washington ended abruptly six months later when Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Makei’s obedience to Mr. 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-à-vis the West.”

As foreign minister, Mr. Makei led his country’s outreach to the West, which Mr. 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, Mr. Makei was a rare senior Belarusian officials who could move between hard-liners in the Belarusian security services and European diplomatic circles, making him a valuable member of Mr. Lukashenko’s team, said Pavel Slunkin, a Belarusian political analyst who had worked under Mr. Makei in the foreign ministry.

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

Mr. Makei’s diplomatic efforts fell apart after Mr. Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on street protests in 2020. This failed effort rendered the foreign minister, in the eyes of many Belarusians, a symbol of gradual political change that never came, said Mr. Slunkin.

The opposition in Belarus took to the streets in 2020 after a fraud-tainted election.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Western sanctions in response to Mr. Lukashenko’s crackdown made Belarus increasingly reliant on Russia and its president, Mr. Putin.

Valery Sakhashchyk, a former Belarusian military officer now serving as an adviser on defense to the exiled opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, told Ukrainian radio on Monday that Mr. Makei’s death had removed an official who, though “deformed by years of service to Lukashenko,” was “undoubtedly some kind of bridge with the West.”

“Today, I am afraid that there is no one to fully replace Makei and this may be a problem,” he said. “This may cause such consequences that Russia will take Lukashenka on a very short leash and may turn out badly.”

Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania.

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