Embattled Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has reshuffled top security officials and backed the creation of armed volunteer militias to patrol the streets, as he tries to quash the biggest opposition protests of his 26-year rule.
Mr Lukashenko dismissed Yuri Karayev as interior minister on Thursday, and named him and two other senior security figures as presidential aides for three key regions: the capital, Minsk, and the western provinces of Grodno and Brest, near Belarus’s increasingly tense border with Poland and Lithuania.
The autocratic leader says those EU and Nato states pose a threat to Belarus and are helping co-ordinate protests that have brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Belarusian cities, since an August election that he claims to have won with an implausible 80 per cent of votes.
“As military people, order in the regions is very important to you,” Mr Lukashenko told Mr Karayev and his two other new regional aides, ex-KGB chief Valery Vakulchik and deputy interior minister Alexander Barsukov.
“You should keep me informed about events and together, if necessary, we will act,” he said, claiming the West remained a threat and that Poland would like to seize “all of Belarus”.
“You know, even if the whole of Nato invaded Belarus, they wouldn’t [take over] . . . We would all die for our country. God forbid, of course,” added Mr Lukashenko, who has been promised financial and security support by Russia.
Mr Karayev, who this week compared the peaceful marches to “a war” and justified the use of firearms against demonstrators, was replaced as interior minister by Ivan Kubrakov.
As Minsk police chief, Mr Kubrakov oversaw the often-brutal post-election crackdown on protesters, in which several people have died, hundreds have been hurt and about 15,000 detained.
Mr Lukashenko also called for volunteer “people’s militias” to help keep order: “Why not involve ex-servicemen in these ‘flying squads’, which could even be armed? Everyone should feel like he’s defending his family and his land,” he said.
More than 100,000 protesters rallied in Minsk last Sunday to demand Mr Lukashenko’s resignation, but a national strike called by the opposition has not caused significant disruption to major firms or Belarusian economic life this week.
The EU and US say the election was rigged and have imposed sanctions on senior Belarusian officials, while US presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged “to lay out a plan of economic support for a truly sovereign, democratic Belarus” if he wins his country’s presidential election next week.