Lukashenko blames strife on west’s spies

Financial Times Middle East - - Front Page - HENRY FOY — MOSCOW

Alexan­der Lukashenko, the au­to­cratic Be­larus pres­i­dent, blamed western in­tel­li­gence agen­cies for fo­ment­ing un­rest against his 23-year rule af­ter a spate of pub­lic protests.—

Be­larus’s au­to­cratic pres­i­dent has blamed western in­tel­li­gence agen­cies for fo­ment­ing un­rest against his 23-year rule af­ter pub­lic protests in the tightly con­trolled coun­try over the past month.

Thou­sands of people have taken part in protests in cities against a new tax on un­em­ploy­ment, in the strong­est show for years of pub­lic dis­con­tent at Alexan­der Lukashenko’s regime. The dis­con­tent in the strate­gi­cally im­por­tant state has partly been fu­elled by a two-year long re­ces­sion.

In an un­prece­dented volte-face Mr Lukashenko agreed to sus­pend the new law but failed to defuse the protests, which­have­called­forhis­res­ig­na­tion.He said yes­ter­day that “western funds” were be­hind what he called the “fifth col­umn” in the coun­try.

“Re­cent events have raised our con­cerns and shown that we should stay on the look­out,” he said, in a re­port by lo­cal news agency Belta.

“This per­tains to the at­tempt of our fifth col­umn with the fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance­ofwest­ern­fund­sand­with­theguid­ance of western in­tel­li­gence ser­vices to en­cour­age our rough­necks, who have run away from the coun­try abroad, to desta­bilise the sit­u­a­tion in Be­larus.”

More than 200 people have been de­tained by po­lice af­ter join­ing in the protests, which be­gan in mid-Fe­bru­ary in re­sponse to a new law that al­lowed for a $250 fine for people who work fewer than 183 days in a year.

Mr Lukashenko, once dubbed “Europe’s last dic­ta­tor” by Con­doleezza Rice, for­mer US sec­re­tary of state, re­sponded to the un­rest by de­lay­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion of the law un­til 2018.

But protest or­gan­is­ers have called for the law to be com­pletely aban­doned and for him to re­lin­quish power, threat­en­ing more protests this week.

The coun­try has been hit by two years of re­ces­sion fol­low­ing the col­lapse in oil prices and eco­nomic slow­down in Rus­sia, its most im­por­tant trad­ing part­ner.

Mr Lukashenko, who hu­man rights groups say has sup­pressed op­po­si­tion move­ments and curbed free­dom of speech, has in re­cent years at­tempted to strike a bal­ance be­tween Rus­sia and the EU, as he seeks for­eign in­vest­ment for the coun­try’s mainly state-run econ­omy.

While Moscow con­sid­ers Minsk part of its sphere of in­flu­ence, deep­en­ing ties with the EU has be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant for Be­larus as re­la­tions with Moscow have chilled. The two coun­tries have re­cently en­gaged in a bor­der quar­rel and hag­gling over Be­larus’s en­ergy sup­plies.

The EU agreed to lift the bulk of its sanc­tions against Minsk a year ago af­ter Mr Lukashenko’s fifth con­sec­u­tive elec­tion vic­tory which, un­like his pre­vi­ous win, did not in­volve vi­o­lent crack­downs against op­po­si­tion politi­cians.

‘Re­cent events have raised our con­cerns and shown that we should stay on the look­out’

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