Lukashenko shakes up security team to stamp out Belarus protests

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko replaced his interior minister and named three security hawks to new roles on Thursday in an attempt to tighten his grip on the country after nearly 12 weeks of mass protests.

FILE PHOTO: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting to discuss preparations for the 6th Belarusian People’s Congress, in Minsk, Belarus October 27, 2020. Nikolai Petrov/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

Ivan Kubrakov, who as head of police in the capital Minsk has led the crackdown on the biggest demonstrations, was appointed interior minister.

His predecessor, Yuri Karayev, was one of three men named to new roles as presidential aides and “inspectors” responsible for key regions of the country.

Lukashenko’s position appears more secure after a national strike call by the opposition failed to bring the economy to a halt this week. Security forces have arrested more than 16,000 people since a presidential election on Aug. 9 which the opposition and Western government say was rigged.

But protests continue, especially at universities, and the reshuffle suggests the veteran leader is concerned at the time it is taking to stamp out opposition and feels the need to do more.

“Lukashenko is nervous and in a flap because he can’t quell the protests. He thinks if he shuffles the deck of security personnel, it will have an effect. Lukashenko is still betting on stifling the protests,” said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.

Lukashenko also ordered the strengthening of armed volunteer militia units, which in theory already exist but in practice have not played a role in the crisis till now.

“NOT YET OVER”

The two other two new presidential aides are Valery Vakulchik, who spent eight years as head of the KGB security police, and former deputy interior minister Alexander Barsukov.

Barsukov will be responsible for Minsk, Vakulchik for Brest on the Polish border, and Karayev for Grodno, near the borders with Poland and Lithuania.

The emphasis on security in regions bordering NATO countries is consistent with repeated allegations by Lukashenko that NATO and the West are whipping up unrest in Belarus. In September he staged a high-profile series of military exercises with his key ally, Russia.

Addressing the three new aides, Lukashenko said they were heading to very important areas of the country “in connection with the events that have occurred and are not yet over – we still don’t know what this may result in”.

“Why you? You are military people, you’re knowledgeable, you don’t need to be brought up to speed and taught.”

Karayev, Barsukov, Vakulchik and Kubrakov were all hit with European Union travel bans and asset freezes earlier this month for their role in the repression, intimidation and arbitrary arrest of protesters since the election. The first three were also accused of responsibility for torture.

The United States has also imposed sanctions on Karayev, Barsukov and Kubrakov.

Belarus denies torturing prisoners and Karayev, the outgoing interior minister, has described its police force as one of the most humane in the world.

U.S. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has said he will expand sanctions on Lukashenko’s “henchmen” if he wins next week’s presidential election.

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