Belarus is a country with few friends left. Two years ago, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the Eastern European nation since the collapse of the USSR, declared he had won a sixth term in office in an election widely denounced as rigged. As pictures of half-burnt ballot papers surfaced, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the result. They were met with tear gas and beatings, while police carried out widespread arrests and tortured detainees. Opposition politicians and activists went into exile or into a jail cell, and the West moved to impose sanctions.

Now, Lukashenko’s increasingly authoritarian regime has only had Russia to turn to for political support, with plans to attract Chinese investment falling flat. Since last year, when the authorities used a bomb hoax to force a Ryanair plane to land in a bid to arrest an anti-government blogger, the country’s airlines have been barred from flying over EU airspace. Belarus’ banks are shut out of European financial institutions, its state industries are barred from exporting to the West and top officials are banned from travelling across much of the continent.

As Foreign Minister, Vladimir Makei had his work cut out for him. To some, the former army colonel was the public face of one of the world’s most brutal states. But for others, he was the man most likely to end up ousting Lukashenko, bringing an end to the autocrat’s 28-year rule. Widely regarded as more pro-European than his boss, he scrapped restrictive visa measures and pursued closer trade ties with the West, until the 2020 election forced him to spend more time talking with Moscow instead.

Now though, the prospect of Makei taking the reins has vanished. On Sunday, state news agency Belta announced that the country’s top diplomat had “passed away suddenly” at the age of 64. The Belarusian foreign minister had been due to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Minsk the same day.

“We are shocked by the reports of the death of the Head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus Vladimir Makei,” Lavrov’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, announced. “Official condolences will be published soon.” Lukashenko’s regime has been one of Russia’s only real allies in its war against Ukraine, allowing Moscow’s forces to launch rockets and ground attacks from within the country.

Meanwhile, exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who believes she is the rightful winner of the 2020 election, said that his complicity in the crackdown on demonstrators made him a figure deserving of contempt. “In 2020, Makei betrayed the Belarusian people and supported tyranny. This is how the Belarusian people will remember him,” she said.

Not known to have been suffering with any illnesses, Makei had appeared perfectly healthy just days before at a summit of former Soviet states in Armenia, attended by Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The cause of his death is unknown, but the circumstances have lent themselves to speculation that foul play was involved.

“It does appear Makei was poisoned by the FSB,” Swedish economist and Russia commentator Anders Åslund has since claimed, blaming Moscow’s top domestic intelligence agency. At the same time, former Kremlin advisor Sergei Markov has accused Polish special services of being behind what he claims is the assassination of the Belarusian diplomat, arguing that Tsikhanouskaya herself is an agent of Polish influence.

Former Belarusian military officer and opposition figure Valery Sakhashchyk, has since said that while Makei was “deformed” by ties to Lukashenko, he had still been “undoubtedly some kind of bridge with the West.”

The cloak and dagger intrigue, and the act Belarus is a geopolitical battleground, has fuelled dozens of theories online, ranging from claims that the purported killing was done to send a message from Moscow to Lukahenko, to reports that Makei had opened illicit backchannels to the West. For the time being, none are supported by any hard evidence.

Other strange details have since surfaced, including the fact that Makei flew to and from the Yerevan summit not in Lukashenko’s plush presidential jet, but in a stripped-down, unheated military cargo plane, along with a small cadre of other officials.

What is clear, though, is that with Putin’s war imposing a new Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe, less information is making its way out than at any point since the fall of the USSR  – and mutual suspicion is at an all-time high. Whether Makei was a handshaking apparatchik from a repressive state or a pro-Western reformer depends on who you ask, but questions around the circumstances of his death may go unanswered for the time being.

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