Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko has named a new interior minister and ordered him to ensure security in Minsk. The state is restricting entries from with Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine, citing COVID-19 fears.
With Belarus still rocked by protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman leader promoted the Minsk police chief to new interior minister on Thursday.
"The situation in Minsk is the most difficult today," Lukashenko told the new minister, Ivan Kubrakov.
"You know it and you will have to deal with it," the president was quoted as saying by state news agency BelTA.
However, Lukashenko did not provide details on why he demoted the previous interior minister, Yury Karayev. The president moved Karayev to a new position of presidential aide in a western region that borders Poland and Lithuania.
Lukashenko appointed two more security hawks as presidential aides. The former head of Belarus' KGB security agency, Valery Vakulchik, will be deployed at Brest, near the Polish border. The former deputy interior minister Alexander Barsukov, will be responsible for Minsk.
Lukashenko said they were deployed due to "the events that have occurred and are not yet over — we still don't know what this may result in."
He also called for the country's armed volunteer militia to be strengthened. While the force formally exists, it has played no active role in the ongoing unrest.
The protest movement was triggered following controversial elections in early August. Over 100,000 people rallied in Minsk last Sunday. Police used stun grenades to disperse the crowd. The opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called for a nationwide strike, but her call has so far failed to bring the state-controlled economy to a halt.
On Thursday, Tsikhanouskaya said Lukashenko's security reshuffle and the border restrictions show he is "in a panic."
Belarus announced that borders with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine will be partially closed. Officials said the reason for the abrupt new restrictions was the coronavirus pandemic.
Diplomatic staff are still allowed through, and trucks can still traverse the borders, according to the border police. Separately, a spokeswoman for Poland's regional border guard service told Reuters that Belarus was still letting in Belarusian nationals.
Lukashenko has repeatedly downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic in the past, with observers suspecting the latest border closure might be politically motivated. Previously, Minsk accused NATO members Poland and Lithuania of "destructive activity" and advised them to downsize their diplomatic missions in Belarus. The incident prompted a diplomatic row that saw several other countries temporarily recall their Minsk envoys as a sign of solidarity with Warsaw and Vilnius.
Poland and Lithuania are among the loudest critics of the current Belarus regime. On Thursday, Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevic said his country had no prior warning that the border would be closed.
dj/rt (Reuters, DPA, Interfax)