A senior Belarusian official who led a failed attempt to unfreeze diplomatic ties between the Kremlin-allied government and the West died suddenly over the weekend, Belarusian state media and government agencies said, amid growing speculation about his country’s involvement in the war in neighboring Ukraine. .
Vladimir Makei served for 10 years as foreign minister of Belarus, a key geopolitical battleground between Russia and the West. State media reported on Saturday that Mr. Makei died at the age of 64, without mentioning the cause of his death.
The muted reaction from officials and the state-controlled media contrasts with Mr. Makei’s status as one of the most high-profile Belarusian officials of modern times and one of the authoritarian president’s oldest key allies. of the country, Aleksandr Lukashenko.
The lack of details, while not unusual under Mr Lukashenko’s secretive regime, has fueled a flurry of speculation among media commentators about the cause of Mr Makei’s death.
As foreign minister, Mr. Makei led his country’s outreach efforts to the West, which Mr. Lukashenko had tried to play against Russia in an effort to maintain political power at home.
A reserve colonel in the army who was fluent in English and German, Mr. Makei was one of the few senior Belarusian officials able to move between hardline nationalists and European diplomatic circles, making him a member valuable part of Mr. Lukashenko’s team, said Pavel Slunkin, a Belarusian political analyst who had worked under Mr. Makei at the Foreign Ministry.
“Thanks to him, Lukashenko had found a way to the West,” Mr Slunkin said, referring to Mr Makei.
Mr. Makei’s diplomatic efforts were shattered by Mr. Lukashenko’s decision to crack down on the opposition and violently suppress mass protests following a disputed election in 2020. This made the foreign minister, to the eyes of many Belarusians, a symbol of progressive political change that never happened, Mr. Slunkin said.
Western sanctions in response to Mr. Lukashenko’s crackdown have made Belarus increasingly dependent on Russia and a key ally of President Vladimir V. Putin.
Mr Putin used Belarus as a starting point for his invasion of Ukraine in February. The Russian military has used Belarusian territory to train troops and treat injured fighters, supply its forces in Ukraine and launch strikes on Ukrainian towns, raising fears among many in Belarus that their country is gradually heading towards confrontation. directly with a neighbor to the south. And Moscow has recently pressured Mr Lukashenko to get more involved in the failing military campaign next door.
Mr. Makei was due to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei V. Lavrov, later this week.
Mr. Lukashenko did not speak about the death of Mr. Makei. The state news agency, Belta, carried a one-line article on Saturday saying the president had offered his condolences to Mr. Makei’s family.
Mr Lukashenko has yet to announce Mr Makei’s replacement. Analysts believe the pick could give an indication of how far the president is willing to push his alliance with Russia.