MINSK (Reuters) – The Interior Ministry in Belarus acknowledged on Tuesday that police were quitting their posts in response to calls from the political opposition, after President Alexander Lukashenko awarded medals to police who have helped him stay in power.
“We will not judge the small proportion of police officers who have today left the service out of personal convictions,” the Interior Ministry press office said in a statement.
Videos have appeared on the internet in recent days showing some junior officers throwing their uniforms into dustbins.
The ministry statement called on other officers to remain at their posts, saying protesters were a minority and that most of the population wants to live in peace.
“If the entire police force today takes off its badges, who will protect those Belarusians while the other part takes to the street to give its opinions?” the ministry said.
In televised remarks to his Security Council of top brass, Lukashenko described plans by the opposition to set up a headquarters later on Tuesday as an “attempt to seize power” and said the authorities would respond with “adequate measures”.
He also said the military had reinforced its western borders, describing the “internal problems” as a coordinated part of an external threat. He denounced “statements by leaders of certain countries who do not even know where Belarus is located and do not know what is going on here”.
Earlier on Tuesday, Lukashenko awarded medals “for impeccable service” to law enforcement officials who have helped him crack down on protesters demanding he step down.
After 26 years in power, the burly former Soviet collective farm boss has seen his grip abruptly loosened in the 10 days since an election his opponents say was flagrantly stolen.
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He appears to have lost support in recent days at big state enterprises normally seen as his bastions, many of whose workers have walked out on strike. He was unexpectedly heckled with chants of “resign!” at a state factory on Monday.
At least three protesters have been killed and thousands detained in the crackdown that followed the election, which Lukashenko says he won with 80 percent of the vote, a result opponents say is absurd. Many of those detained have complained of beatings, cramped conditions and starvation rations.
Opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says she was the rightful winner. Tsikhanouskaya, who emerged as the consensus opposition candidate only after her husband and others were jailed or barred from standing, has fled abroad, issuing calls via the internet to followers to rise up.
Hundreds of protesters chanting “shame” gathered at a theatre in Minsk on Tuesday in solidarity with its director, who was fired for speaking out in support of the opposition. They were due later to converge on a prison where Tsikhanouskaya’s husband has been detained.
“All of this outrageous, unfair lawlessness shows us how this rotten system works, where one person controls everything,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a video on Tuesday. “One man has kept the country in fear for 26 years. One man stole the choice of Belarusians,” she said.
For his part, Lukashenko says the protests are being stirred up from abroad. The official Belta news agency released a video calling protesters “bought-and-sold scum, prepared to sell their own mothers for $20”.
Attention is firmly focused on how Russia will respond to the biggest political crisis facing an ex-Soviet neighbour since 2014 in Ukraine, when Moscow intervened militarily after a friendly leader was toppled by public protests.
Of all former Soviet republics, Belarus is closest to Russia culturally, politically and economically, with a treaty that proclaims the two countries part of a “union state” with a Soviet-style red flag. But President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko have had a difficult personal relationship.
European officials say the situation in Belarus is different from Ukraine’s six years ago, in part because the Belarus opposition is not necessarily seeking to loosen ties with Russia, merely to get rid of Lukashenko.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and EU foreign policy chief Charles Michel spoke to Putin by telephone on Tuesday. The Kremlin said Putin warned all three against foreign meddling in the affairs of Belarus.
The European Union is gearing up to impose new sanctions on Belarus officials, while also searching for ways to promote a negotiated solution.
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