Warsaw, Poland – Belarus is putting its military on high alert and will close its borders with EU and NATO member states Poland and Lithuania, embattled President Alexander Lukashenko announced on Thursday.
“We are forced to withdraw troops from the streets, put the army on high alert and close the state borders on the west, primarily with Lithuania and Poland”, Lukashenko, who has faced mass protests calling for his resignation for six weeks in a row, said during a public event in Belarus.
According to the latest updates, Belarus’ western borders were still open on Friday morning, although “checks have been stepped up”.
The Belarusian President, who has faced unprecedented calls to step down following an allegedly rigged election in August, has repeatedly accused Western powers and EU member states of being responsible for orchestrating the protests that pose the most serious threat to date to his 26-year authoritarian rule.
“I don’t want my country to be at war. Moreover, I don’t want Belarus and Poland, Lithuania to turn into a theater of military operations where our issues will not be resolved”, Lukashenko said in a veiled threat of military build-up. “Therefore, today in front of this hall of the most beautiful, advanced patriotic people I want to appeal to the people of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine – stop your crazy politicians, don’t let war break out!”.
“Europe’s last dictator”, as foreign commentators often call him, also said security would be strengthened at the country’s border with Ukraine. He did not, however, say anything about Belarus’ borders with Latvia.
The EU, the U.S. and international rights organizations have pointed to mounting evidence of fraud in the August election, and have called for Lukashenko to enter talks with the opposition and agree to hold a new election.
Russia, which remains Lukashenko’s main ally and has long pushed for a deeper integration with its neighbour, agreed on Thursday to provide a $1.5 billion loan to the Belarusian government following a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.
Responding to international criticism, Lukashenko once again dismissed claims of electoral fraud, and claimed on Thursday that “we held elections based on the constitution and laws of our country, and we don’t require recognition from anyone”.
Poland, for its part, has – rather unsuccessfully – tried to take center-stage in the stand-off and spearhead EU efforts to mediate the crisis, support persecuted government critics and promote a peaceful democratic transition on its eastern border.
Thousands of peaceful protesters have been detained by Belarusian police since the start of the crisis. Human rights groups and opposition activists have also documented growing evidence of physical abuse and torture at the hands of state security forces.
Main photo credit: Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko