MINSK — Belarus has partially closed its land borders with all neighbors except Russia for most travelers, amid strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s efforts to end weeks of street protests against a disputed election that gave him a sixth consecutive term as president.
The Belarusian Border Control Committee on October 29 announced the closure of borders with Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine, citing the “epidemiological situation” in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
But there is speculation that the move might have a political motivation. It came despite Belarusian officials having minimized the threat of the pandemic for months, and follows claims that Belarus’s neighbors have tried to destabilize the situation in the country.
And a shakeup and appointment of others close to Lukashenka in top security positions signals a tightening of his grip on security across the country and especially in the capital, the epicenter of postelection protests and resulting police violence against peaceful demonstrators.
The Border Control Committee said only Belarusian citizens and trucks were being allowed to enter Belarus through land checkpoints.
Rustamas Liubajevas, chief of the Lithuanian border guard, said cars going into Belarus were barred from entry, and within hours the border had been closed to outgoing cars.
The change came without advance warning, Liubajevas told Reuters.
Belarusian opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who left the country under pressure following the election she claims she won, said the border closure was a sign that Lukashenka is “in a panic.”
Lukashenka has described the COVID-19 pandemic as a “psychosis.” The Belarusian authorities have reported more than 96,000 coronavirus cases, with over 970 deaths.
Earlier on October 29, state media reported that Interior Minister Yury Karayeu was replaced by Ivan Kubrakou, who prior to his appointment to the post led the Minsk city police department.
The move comes a day after Karayeu, who is under EU sanctions for his role in the violent crackdown against protesters, publicly said that security forces could use live munitions against demonstrators who have been a constant presence on the streets since the August 9 presidential election.
He was moved to the position of presidential aide in the western Hrodna region, while Deputy Interior Minister Alyaksandr Barsukou was made a presidential aide in Minsk and Valer Vakulchyk,, the former chief of the Belarusian KGB, became a presidential aide in the western region of Brest.
Local media quoted Lukashenka as saying that his aides’ responsibilities will be widened and their “task is to select cadres and control their activities.”
Belarus has witnessed near daily protests since the vote that Lukashenka, in power since 1994, claims he won by a landslide.
Lukashenka has responded to demonstrations against the official outcome with a crackdown that has seen more than 10,000 arrests and accusations of torture and beatings by security forces of peaceful demonstrators. Members of the media reporting on the protests have also been attacked.
Most of the country’s opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country, including Tsikhanouskaya, who has said the vote was rigged in Lukashenka’s favor and considers herself the rightful winner. She left Belarus for Lithuania days after the vote amid threats to her and her family.
On October 28, Karayeu said law enforcement could use combat weapon against protesters considered to be carrying out “sabotage or a terrorist attacks” against police.
The day before, Lukashenka described ongoing strikes called by the opposition at the start of the week as “the actions of organized criminal groups.”
Lukashenka said the country was “starting to face terrorist threats,” in reference to weeks of peaceful protests against his rule.
Western governments have voiced support for the opposition, with both the European Union and the United States refusing to recognize Lukashenka as Belarus’s legitimate leader.
The EU has announced asset freezes and visa bans against 40 Belarusian officials for their alleged roles in the repression of protesters and the opposition, as well as fraud during the August vote.
On October 12, EU foreign ministers gave a political green light to a new sanctions package that will include Lukashenka himself.