The protests in Belarus are continuing into their third week. Police are cracking down, detaining protestors, media, and arresting opposition members. Meanwhile, Russia is standing by with a special police “reserve” force to move into Belarus if asked by the current regime. And the Russian proxy force of Wagner Group mercenaries has already been involved.
The protests erupted following what has been roundly criticized as a fraudulent election on August 9th. Lukashenko, according to his own official vote-counters, carried the slate with 80 percent of the vote. President Alexander Lukashenko, a Soviet-style authoritarian leader, who is frequently called “Europe’s Last Dictator,” has been in power since 1994.
Police at first violently cracked down on the protests that drew about 200,000 people in Minsk. Three people died, hundreds were injured, and 6,700 were arrested. But then Lukashenko let the following protests go on nearly unhindered until Wednesday.
Yet, that changed. Police detained at least 16 journalists, bringing them to a police station to conduct “identity checks” and to check whether they had “valid accreditation.” But many of the European journalists said that is was a blatant attempt to stop the reporting on the huge demonstrations entering their 19th day. Police confiscated journalists’ telephones and identity papers.
As Belarus’s citizens were waving flags and holding signs reading that Lukashenko must go, security police dispersed the crowds and arrested nearly 200 more people. Lukashenko was shown on Belarus television in a strange video flying over the city of Minsk, wearing black riot gear and brandishing an AK-47. He’s using the tactic of “selective repression” arresting only certain members of the protests to silence calls for his stepping down.
With the exception of Russia and China, there was worldwide condemnation of the crackdown.
“We believe that under the leadership of President Lukashenko, Belarus will restore political stability and social peace,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said. He added that China “firmly opposes interference in Belarus’ internal affairs by external forces.”
President Putin in Russia is ready to step in and quash the protests. He has said that Belarus President Lukashenko “asked me to set up a certain police reserve” and “I have done so.”
“We also agreed that it won’t be used until the situation gets out of control,” Putin said to Rossiya 1TV in an interview. He added that the reserve police forces would not go into Belarus unless “extremist elements using political slogans as cover cross a certain boundary and start armed robbery, setting fire to cars, houses, banks, try to seize government buildings and so forth.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki condemned Putin’s planned move. Taking to Twitter he said that Poland “urges Russia to immediately withdraw from plans of a military intervention in Belarus, under the false excuse of ‘restoring control’ — a hostile act, in breach of international law and human rights of Belarusian people, who should be free to decide their own fate.”
Russian influence and interference are what many in western Europe fear. The special reserve police force that Putin has mentioned will most certainly consist of some members of the FSB and other forces that will be used to suppress the Belarussian people. On Wednesday, an aircraft transported top officials from Russia’s FSB security services to Minsk for the second time in a week. The Kremlin said it had no information as to who was on board or what sort of consultations might have taken place.
Putin and Lukashenko also are trying to paint the protestors as puppets of the U.S. and the West.
Yet, Putin now also has to deal with the fallout of the arrest of 33 Wagner Group mercenaries on the eve of the Belarusian election.
Putin has painted the affair in the media as a joint U.S.-Ukrainian intelligence operation. He said in a television interview with Rossia 24 that the detained Russian mercenaries were tricked into traveling to Belarus with forged documents “for absolutely legal work in Latin America and the Middle East.”
“In reality, they were dragged into Belarus and presented as a quote-unquote ‘strike force’ to destabilize the situation during the presidential campaign,” Putin said during the interview.
“These people, I repeat, were traveling for work to a third country. They were lured there, dragged across the border… It was an operation of Ukrainian intelligence agencies together with American ones,” Putin said.
“Our border agents, by the way, wouldn’t have let them out of the country,” he added. Despite the outrageous charges leveled against the U.S. and Ukraine, Putin offered no proof on how the Americans “duped” Wagner mercs into operating in Belarus.
Allies of exiled opposition leader, and Lukashenko’s opponent in the August 9th election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya formed the Coordination Council to oversee the peaceful transition of power. But authorities have been rounding them up and giving them short jail sentences under accusations of trying to seize power.
Tikhanovskaya has been forced into exile into neighboring Lithuania, fearing for her and her family’s lives. In her only interview with Western journalists, she told the BBC that the protests must go on.
“We have no right to step back now — if not now, we’ll be slaves and our people understand this and I’m sure we will stand till the end.”