In a shift, Belarus leader seeks to stem protests gradually

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State TV and Radio Company of Belarus

FILE - This Aug. 23, 2020, file image made from video provided by the State TV and Radio Company of Belarus, shows Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko armed with a rifle near the Palace of Independence in Minsk, Belarus. His office released a video showing Lukashenko landing in a helicopter nearby and brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle as protesters marched nearby. He called the protesters rats as he inspected riot police guarding the residence. His youngest son, 15-year-old Nikolai, walked nearby, also carrying a rifle. (State TV and Radio Company of Belarus via AP, File)

MINSK – When Belarusians filled the streets to protest what they called a fraudulent election that kept authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in power, the blunt repressions came first.

Police used tear gas, flash grenades and beatings on the crowds in the capital of Minsk and elsewhere. They detained thousands, with hundreds injured and at least three deaths.

But the heavy-handed measures in the days after the Aug. 9 election seemed to produce the opposite effect, emboldening more protesters, triggering strikes at state-run factories and forcing authorities to back off.

With the protests now in their third week — including rallies that brought out an estimated 200,000 people in Minsk on the last two Sundays — the 65-year-old president is shifting tactics. He is moving to squelch the demonstrations gradually with vague promises of reforms mixed with threats, court summonses and the selective jailing of leading activists.

Observers say the moves by Lukashenko to buy some time likely will see him holding onto power for now, although he almost certainly will face more challenges amid a worsening economy and simmering public anger.

“Lukashenko has enough resources to control the situation. He is predictably stifling the protests, but the picture is changing,” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent political analyst. “The economy is becoming Lukashenko’s main enemy. His regime is running out of funds."

Throughout his 26-year rule, the former state farm director has maintained Soviet-style controls over the economy and relied on cheap energy and other subsidies from Russia, which has a union agreement with the nation of 9.5 million.

Public weariness with Lukashenko's iron-fisted rule, augmented by his cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic as a “psychosis” and the bruising economic fallout from the outbreak, has fomented broad discontent.