Written by Andrew Higgins and Anatoly Kurmanaev
The death of a top official who led Belarus’ failed attempts to improve its relations with the West came 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 Saturday 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.
Shortly after Makei’s death was reported, the exiled colleagues of a jailed opposition leader, Maria Kolesnikova, said she had been rushed to the intensive care ward of a hospital in western Belarus on Monday, also for unknown reasons.
“We don’t know what happened, we hope there will be more information soon,” Kolesnikova’s sister, Tatiana Khomich, said in response to a request for comment. She added that her sister had been moved two weeks ago from a regular prison in the city of Gomel to a solitary isolation cell in a different facility. The family has not been allowed to contact her since the move.
Makei’s sudden death and Kolesnikova’s unexplained illness put a spotlight on Belarus’ highly unpredictable and enigmatic internal dynamics at a time of heightened political tension in the country created by the war in Ukraine.
Kolsenikova has a reputation as one of Lukashenko’s most resolute and effective opponents. She is widely admired for having resisted attempts to forcibly deport her from Belarus to Ukraine in 2020 and for vowing to continue her struggle from inside the country instead of taking refuge abroad as many others have.
This led to her conviction last year on charges of conspiring to seize power illegally. A Belarusian court jailed her for 11 years.
Makei, by contrast, was never a dissident but was a close ally of Lukashenko. Still, he represented an increasingly rare view among Belarusian officials: that the country needed to reach out to the West and to avoid falling entirely under Russia’s sway.
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 have been 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 because of the uncertainties created by the war in neighboring Ukraine.
Ryhor Astapenia, the Belarus initiative director at Chatham House, a research organization in London, said Makei was “part of the regime clearly,” but “was the devil that was known to the West” who made it “easier for the West at least to understand the political logic of the regime.”
Lukashenko, he added, must now decide whether to choose a replacement foreign minister who can try to talk to the West — or he could decide that “he doesn’t want to engage with the West anymore” and submit without question to Russia.
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.
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’ 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.
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 U.S. 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.”
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.
Makei’s diplomatic efforts fell apart after 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, Slunkin said.
Western sanctions in response to Lukashenko’s crackdown made Belarus increasingly reliant on Russia and Putin.
Valery Sakhashchyk, a former Belarusian military officer now serving as an adviser on defense to exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, told Ukrainian radio Monday that Makei’s death had removed an official who, although “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 Lukashenko on a very short leash and may turn out badly.”