KYIV, Ukraine — Belarus' authoritarian leader 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 is 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.
Observers saw Thursday's appointments as an attempt by the president to further tighten control.
“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 demonstrations to swell. The government has since switched tactics and tried to halt the protests with threats, selective detention of protesters and prosecution of activists.
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 centre in Belarus.
Another council member detained earlier 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.
Two Moscow-based Associated Press journalists who were covering the protests were deported to Russia on Saturday. In addition, the AP’s Belarusian journalists were told by the government that their press credentials had been revoked.
Several Belarusian journalists were detained earlier 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.
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 asked by reporters after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Thursday about his country’s proposals to facilitate dialogue between the Belarusian government and the opposition.
Lofven said the offer was made because Sweden assumes the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ext year.
“We thought it was an idea to offer an organization in which Belarus is a member as a forum for dialogue,” he said. “We need to find a way to have a dialogue between the opposition and the leaders. So 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 said last week he stands ready to send police to Belarus at Lukashenko’s request if the demonstrations turn violent, but added that there was no need for that yet.
On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin travelled 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 opposition politician 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 said Wednesday tests indicated the dissident was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok.
“We intercepted an interesting call, which clearly showed that it was a falsification," Lukashenko said, adding that the conversation involved interlocutors in Warsaw and Berlin whom he didn't name. "There was no poisoning of Navalny.”
He charged that the call signalled that an unidentified “group of experts” prepared information on the case for German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a goal to “make Putin lose interest in sticking his nose into Belarus' affairs.”
“See the Jesuitic way in which those people act?” Lukashenko said, adding that Belarusian authorities would share the recording with Russia.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the political crisis in Belarus at https://apnews.com/Belarus
Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press