Batka Gets His Gun. Belarusians Take Note. Laughter Ensues.
By Michael Scollon August 24, 2020
At first, the sight of a government Mi-8 helicopter flying over massive protests in Minsk led to speculation that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was fleeing the capital amid days of opposition pressure for him to step to step down.
In fact, the authoritarian ruler appeared to have been on a reconnaissance mission, taking airborne advantage of his red-and-green aircraft to observe the red-and-white demonstrators challenging him
Then, after touching down, Lukashenka was filmed striding on the grounds of the presidential palace wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying an AK-47 rifle, flanked by an armed entourage that included his 15-year-old son wearing body armor.
But while the scene appeared to be a show of force aimed at demonstrators disputing the August 9 election that he was declared winner of, the message was received with a mix of skepticism, disbelief, and even outright mockery.
The tough-guy appearance was part of a broader demonstration, by him and his government, that has included threats of military intervention, efforts to rally the troops, and sniping comments toward demonstrators.
The imagery added further to the mixed picture of Lukashenka's response, and to concerns that he was contemplating a full-blown aggressive crackdown on opponents.
Such a response likely couldn't happen without Russia's knowledge. But Moscow, which has long had a strained friendship with Lukashenka and has admitted there were shortcomings in the vote, has wavered on its offer of military intervention under the terms of the military alliance known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Asked on August 23 about Lukashenka carrying the weapon, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to answer the question.
But Viktor Vodolatsky, a lawmaker for the ruling United Russia party who serves on the parliamentary committee overseeing affairs with ex-Soviet republics, offered his interpretation to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Lukashenka "wanted to demonstrate his readiness to fight for Belarus, for his country, against the organizers of all sorts of orange revolutions," Vodolatsky was quoted as saying. That's a reference to pro-democracy upheaval in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere in the former Soviet space that the Kremlin frequently claims were fomented by the West.
Some observers suggested that Lukashenka's warning shot was a damp squib, noting that there was no ammunition clip on his Kalashnikov. "The footage almost seemed comical in nature, but it is anything but to those in Minsk that are demanding his ouster," the War Zone military blog said.
Aleksei Pushkov, a Kremlin ally in Russia's upper house of parliament, openly questioned the logic of Lukashenka's gun-toting display. "Looks strong, but the scene is dark. Was it necessary to bring things to this?" he said in a post to his Telegram channel. "There were no reasons for such a force majeure. Gross political mistakes were made."
And Vladimir Solovyov, a pro-Kremlin talk-show host on state TV, posted a throwback picture of an armed Lukashenka on his Telegram channel. "Lukashenka with an automatic weapon when it wasn't mainstream," he wrote.
The imagery also drew derision from Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden and ex-European Union envoy, who said that entire day, including him brandishing the weapon, was "deeply humiliating" for Lukashenka, and suggested he was scared and lacked confidence.
One Twitter user called on readers to offer suitable musical accompaniments for Lukashenka's video, which included an Elton John song ("I'm Still Standing") and the Imperial March from the Star Wars films.
Still, the tough talk hasn't been limited to Lukashenka. Earlier on August 23, ahead of the arrival of some 150,000 demonstrators in Minsk's Independence Square, Defense Minister Viktor Krenin threatened military intervention if any war monuments were harmed.
"We are strictly warning in case of disruption of the order and tranquility in these places, you will be dealing not with the police, but with the army," Krenin said in a video statement posted on the ministry's official Telegram channel.
In videos from Lukashenka's helicopter posted on the state news agency BelTA, the embattled president could be seen sending orders to security forces below. At one point, he can be heard remarking that the protesters had "fled like rats" as riot police began to move in to disperse the demonstrations.
The Telegram channel for the official Belarusian press pool was the first to show Lukashenka addressing his guards as he inspected the security cordon outside his residence after the demonstrators -- some of which reportedly had approached the presidential palace -- had cleared.
"Guys, thank you, you are beautiful!" he is heard telling the guards, adding in reference to the protesters that "we will deal with them."
"We are with you till the end!" the guards responded.
At the end of the day, Lukashenka's press spokeswoman claimed he had been in control from the beginning.
"As the president promised, he did not run anywhere," Natalya Eismont said. "No matter how some bloggers and Telegram channels tried to present it."
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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