Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko responded to huge anti-government protests and calls for his resignation by posting video of himself flying over Minsk in riot gear, with a rifle hanging from his shoulder.
As mass demonstrations over a contested presidential election enter a third week in Belarus, tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital and across the country at the weekend to demanding change and a new presidential poll.
While Sunday’s protest was winding down in Minsk, Lukashenko’s press service recorded and posted a series of bizarre videos in which the strongman leader inspected the city from a helicopter, wearing an all-black uniform and a bulletproof vest.
“They ran away like rats,” Lukashenko said as the aircraft approached one of his Minsk residencies, the Palace of Independence.
In another video, he is seen stepping out of a helicopter at the palace with a Kalashnikov-style rifle in his hands. Accompanied by armed soldiers and his 15-year-old son Kolya, also armed and wearing a military uniform, the group appears to thank riot police who formed a barricade on the avenue leading to the residence during the protests.
Independent observers criticized the country’s August 9 poll for being neither free nor fair. And much of the international community has expressed solidarity with the protesters, piling pressure on Lukashenko — who has ruled Belarus for 26 years — to give in to calls for another vote.
In the meantime, Lukashenko has blamed the West for steering the protests and voiced a series of unfounded claims about the West stepping up its military efforts near Belarus borders.
Sunday’s footage appeared after some of the protesters who took part in Sunday’s “March for New Belarus” approached the Palace of Independence after breaking away from the main demonstration.
The march initially started at Independence Square near the Parliament and the Central Elections Committee buildings, but the protesters soon dispersed and moved to other parts of the city.
Several thousand people marched towards Victory Park where the largest demonstration in Belarus’ history took place a weekend ago. The entrance to the park and its war memorial have been blocked off by riot police and soldiers. Prior to the protest, the country’s Ministry of Defense issued a strongly-worded statement vowing to take control of national monuments to protect them from demonstrators.
At one point the protesters approached the monument but were told to step back to avoid confrontation by Maria Kolesnikova, the last opposition leader who remains in the country. Several thousand protesters then marched further down the avenue towards the Palace of Independence. By the time Lukashenko’s videos appeared the demonstration was largely over.
The President then returned to the palace to hold an “emergency security meeting.” In a picture posted by his press service, Lukashenko is seen seated at a large roundtable with his press secretary and his teenage son, still holding a rifle.