Belarus leader cites alleged NATO threat to shore up rule

US & World

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus’ authoritarian leader accused NATO on Friday of hatching aggressive plans and threatened neighbors Lithuania and Poland with counter-sanctions as he sought to shore up his 26-year rule amid weeks of demonstrations against his reelection in a vote the opposition says was rigged.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the 9.5-million nation in Eastern Europe with an iron fist since 1994, blamed the West for fomenting demonstrations in Belarus in hopes of turning it into a “bridgehead against Russia.”

“They want to topple this government and replace it with another one that would ask a foreign country to send troops in support,” he said. “They want our market to sell their products.”

NATO has rejected previous such claims by Lukashenko. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said this week that the Belarusian leader tries to conjure up the image of outside forces threatening Belarus as an excuse for his crackdown on the opposition, which has seen hundreds of protesters beaten by police.

In addition, the idea that Belarus’ ailing Soviet-style economy would be seen as a beacon for exporters seems to defy current economic realities. Protests have been fueled by growing weariness about Lukashenko’s rule, his cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic and a bruising economic fallout from the outbreak in a country where living standards were already sinking.

The 65-year-old Belarusian leader threatened to retaliate against neighbors Poland and Lithuania, which pushed strongly for the European Union’s sanctions against his government. Lithuania also hosted the main opposition challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who moved there after the vote, pressured by Belarusian authorities.

Lukashenko said Belarus would strike back by halting imports via Lithuanian ports and force its western neighbors to use longer routes via the Baltics and the Black Sea in their trade with Russia and China.

“Let’s us see who will get scared first, we will show them sanctions,” he said. “I have ordered the government to divert all trade flows away from Lithuanian ports. They have grown spoiled, and now we will show them their place.”

He added that “they were doing transit via us, but now they will need to go over the Baltics or the Black Sea to trade with Russia.”

Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis responded in a Facebook statement, saying that if Lukashenko fulfills his threat it will mostly hurt Belarus and its people.

Lukashenko has repeatedly sought to cast the protests that are demanding his resignation as part of a Western plot against Russia, in a bid to secure Moscow’s support.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Thursday that he stands ready to send police into Belarus if protests there turn violent but sees no such need yet.

The wave of protests that came after election officials declared Lukashenko had won a sixth term in a landslide in the Aug. 9 presidential election has cast an unprecedented challenge to his rule. Both the European Union and the United States have said the vote was neither free nor fair.

A fierce crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in the days after the vote left nearly 7,000 people detained, hundreds injured by police rubber bullets, stun grenades and beatings and at least three protesters dead, sparking massive outrage and forcing the authorities to back off. Police stopped interfering with the demonstrations for the next two weeks, but again began dispersing rallies over the past days, albeit without violence.

On Friday evening, hundreds of women formed a human chain in a protest demonstration in the capital’s Independence Square, Police detained some journalists and protesters, though many journalists were released with an hour; the Viasna human rights center said dozens of people were detained in all.

Viasna said 267 people, including scores of journalists, were detained the previous evening when police broke up a rally of about 1,500 people on the square.

Some were released pending their appearance in court on charges of taking part in an unsanctioned rally. The Interior Ministry said 114 detainees were in custody on Friday.

The EU has agreed to impose sanctions on up to 20 senior Belarus officials suspected of election fraud and the crackdown on protesters and is likely to put Lukashenko on its list at some point, the bloc’s foreign ministers said Friday at a meeting in Berlin.

In Vienna, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe offered to mediate between the two sides in Belarus, with chairman Edi Rama pledging not to “interfere in internal affairs” but at the same time stressing that the human rights abuses must end.

Lukashenko has rejected mediation offers from the West, dismissing protesters as Western puppets. His main election challenger has fled the country for her safety.

On Friday, hundreds of opposition supporters again formed “chains of solidarity” across Minsk as the protests entered their 20th day.

“A peaceful protest is stronger than clubs and fear,” said 30-year-old demonstrator Maxim Zhurkov.

The opposition is bracing for another big rally in Minsk on Sunday. Demonstrations around the capital’s main square peaked to about 200,000 over the past two Sundays, the biggest protests the country has ever seen.

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Lorne Cook in Brussels and David Rising in Berlin contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverage of Belarus at https://www.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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