Beleaguered Belarus leader shuffles aides to tighten control

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gestures while speaking to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, during their talks in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. On Thursday, Russia's Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin traveled to the Belarusian capital to discuss conditions for Belarus to refinance a Russian loan. (Alexander Astafyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

KYIV – The authoritarian leader of Belarus 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 has been 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. AP journalists have spoken to poll workers in several places who have explained how the vote was manipulated.

Observers saw Thursday's appointments as an attempt by the president to further tighten control over the Eastern European nation of 9.5 million that he has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

“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 the anti-government demonstrations to swell. The government has since switched tactics and tried to halt the protests with threats, selective detention of protesters and the prosecution of activists. Some striking workers say they have been threatened with job losses.

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.