Beleaguered Belarus leader shuffles aides to tighten control

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gestures while speaking to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, during their talks in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. On Thursday, Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin traveled to the Belarusian capital to discuss conditions for Belarus to refinance a Russian loan. (Alexander Astafyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The authoritarian leader of Belarus reshuffled his top government lieutenants Thursday in an apparent attempt to strengthen his position amid weeks of protests pushing for him to resign after 26 years in office.

President Alexander Lukashenko promoted Valery Vakulchik, who led the state security agency that still goes under the Soviet-era name of KGB, to be the secretary of the presidential Security Council. He replaced Vakulchik with Ivan Tertel, who previously served as head of the State Control Committee.

Lukashenko has been the target of protests challenging his reelection to a sixth term in office. Opponents say the Aug. 9 election in which he was given 80% of the vote was rigged. AP journalists have spoken to poll workers in several places who have explained how the vote was manipulated.

Observers saw Thursday’s appointments as an attempt by the president to further tighten control over the Eastern European nation of 9.5 million that he has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

“It’s part of a clear trend toward the strengthening of the police state,” said Alexander Klaskousky, an independent Minsk-based political analyst. “The repressions will escalate.”

During the first few days of post-election protests, police detained nearly 7,000 people and beat hundreds, drawing international outrage and causing the anti-government demonstrations to swell. The government has since switched tactics and tried to halt the protests with threats, selective detention of protesters and the prosecution of activists. Some striking workers say they have been threatened with job losses.

The Interior Ministry said 24 people were detained Wednesday on charges of taking part in unsanctioned protests. They could receive fines or jail sentences of up to 15 days if convicted.

Targeting the protest leaders, Belarusian prosecutors have opened a criminal probe of the Coordination Council that opposition activists set up after the election to try to negotiate a transition of power. Two of its members were given 10-day jail sentences on charges of staging unsanctioned protests last week, and a court in Minsk handed them new 15-day sentences Thursday.

“It looks like a mockery,. The authorities have stopped paying attention to the law,” said Valiantsin Stefanovich of the Viasna human rights center in Belarus.

Another council member detained this week on tax evasion charges faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.

As they try to stifle dissent, authorities also have revoked the accreditation of many Belarusian journalists and deported some foreign journalists, including two Moscow-based Associated Press journalists. In addition, the AP’s Belarusian journalists were told that their press credentials had been revoked.

Several Belarusian journalists were detained this week and charged with taking part in unsanctioned protests. Late Wednesday, police detained two popular TV anchors who resigned from state TV in solidarity with the protesters.

About 50 independent journalists demonstrated Thursday evening outside the Interior Ministry’s headquarters in Minsk, calling for the detained journalists to be released.

The United States and the European Union have criticized the Aug. 9 presidential election as neither free nor fair and urged Belarusian authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition, a demand Lukashenko has dismissed.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was Thursday about his country’s proposals to facilitate dialogue between the Belarusian government and the opposition. He said the offer was made because Sweden assumes the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe next year.

“We thought it was an idea to offer an organization in which Belarus is a member as a forum for dialogue,” he said. “That was the offer. It’s still open. But it’s up to Belarus, of course, to take the decision.”

Lukashenko has sought to secure support from Russia, which has a union treaty with Belarus envisaging close political, economic and military ties. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he stands ready to send police to Belarus at Lukashenko’s request if the demonstrations turn violent.

On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin traveled to the Belarusian capital to discuss conditions for Belarus to refinance a Russian loan. During a meeting with Lukashenko, Mishustin noted progress in strengthening the two countries’ union agreement.

In a gesture of political support for Russia as it contends with Western criticism over the alleged poisoning of Putin critic Alexei Navalny, Lukashenko said Belarusian intelligence had eavesdropped on a phone call allegedly indicating that the poisoning was a sham.

Navalny is being treated in Germany, where doctors say tests indicated the dissident was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok. Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday called Navalny’s poisoning an attempted murder that aimed to silence one of Putin’s fiercest critics and called for a full investigation.

“We intercepted an interesting call, which clearly showed that it was a falsification,” Lukashenko said, adding that the conversation involved people in Warsaw and Berlin whom he didn’t name. “There was no poisoning of Navalny.”

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the political crisis in Belarus at https://apnews.com/Belarus

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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