MINSK, Belarus – Belarus' president said Tuesday that about 20 militants have been arrested for seeking to fuel unrest in the ex-Soviet nation, a statement that comes amid mounting social protests.
Alexander Lukashenko said the militants were preparing an "armed provocation," adding that they had undergone training in neighboring Ukraine and received money from EU members Poland and Lithuania.
"There are people who want to destabilize the situation in the country," he said. "They need to raise a mutiny. Their dream is to destroy the government and oust the president."
The Belarusian leader didn't name those involved or describe any details of their alleged plot, but on Monday he claimed that Western intelligence agencies were using a "fifth column" inside the country to cause unrest and threaten the stability of his regime.
Belarus has faced its largest street protests in years, with thousands rallying against a new labor law that obliges citizens to pay the equivalent of $250 if they work less than half the year and do not register with state labor exchanges. The law angered many in the nation of 10 million stuck in a two-year recession.
Earlier this month, Lukashenko suspended collection of the fee, but his move has failed to end the protests, which have included calls for his resignation.
Denis Melyantsov of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, a Minsk-based think-tank, said Lukashenko's statement was intended to quell the demonstrations by casting them as part of a foreign conspiracy.
"The goal is to discredit protests and keep people from joining them," he said. "The authorities want to show that the protests are rooted in foreign interference, not public discontent."
Lukashenko, a former state farm director, has ruled the nation with an iron hand since 1994, maintaining rigid state controls over most of the economy and relentlessly stifling dissent. He has relied on cheap energy and other subsidies and loans provided by Belarus' main sponsor and ally, Russia, but his relations with the Kremlin have recently grown strained amid business disputes.
Lukashenko has flirted with the West in an apparent bid to persuade the Kremlin to make concessions. However, the recent arrests of dozens of opposition activists in response to protests would make any rapprochement with the West unlikely.