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Workers Boo Belarus President During His Visit To A Tractor Plant

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Alexander Lukashenko, the five-term president of Belarus, is under increasing pressure after an election earlier this month which Lukashenko says he won but many believe was rigged. Thousands and thousands of people have joined mass protests demanding he resign. Today, when Lukashenko visited a heavy machine factory in the capital Minsk, he was heckled by the workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Booing).

KELLY: They booed and chanted shame when Lukashenko defended riot police who have beaten people out protesting his recent election. NPR's Lucian Kim is tracking this from Moscow. He joins us now.

Hey, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the video rolling in from Belarus over the weekend was just stunning - so many people out in the streets. It must be such a shock for Lukashenko, who's ruled for 26 years. Is he really under threat?

KIM: Well, it was absolutely a shock, especially the fact industrial workers, his base for so many years, are turning on him. And at the same time, you have journalists from state media, health care workers, scientists - practically everybody in the country is coming out to protest against him. There are also incidents of members of the security services very publicly handing in their badges. But so far, Lukashenko still controls the army and police. Over the weekend, it looked like he was trying to turn this very domestic conflict into an international one. He started warning about some kind of threat from NATO, and he phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin twice.

KELLY: Speaking of Russia, how likely is it that Russia may get more involved here, that Putin might - I don't know - send in troops to help Lukashenko?

KIM: Well, Russia's interest here is clear. Belarus is a strategic ally situated between Russia and three NATO member states. The two countries also have a loose political and economic union. So Putin has a lot at stake here. I asked Alexander Baunov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, if Putin can just afford to let Lukashenko go.

ALEXANDER BAUNOV: For him, a ruler overturned by the protesters on the street is a bad precedent and bad thing in itself. But it happened six times before in the post-Soviet space and only once he really tried to support and to intervene.

KIM: So that one time Russia did intervene was six years ago in Ukraine when Russia annexed Crimea and supported an armed insurgency in the eastern part of that country. In Belarus, Baunov says the ideal situation for the Kremlin would be to act as some kind of mediator in a political transition. I think it's notable that nobody in the Belarusian opposition is even talking about Belarus joining NATO or the European Union.

KELLY: What is the state of the opposition, by the way? Worth reminding people that the woman who ran against Lukashenko - she left the country under duress. She's still not back in Belarus, right?

KIM: That's right. Her name is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and she was the main opposition candidate. Even though she's in exile, she's still sending out video addresses via YouTube. Even though her husband is still in one of Lukashenko's jails, today she came out and said she's ready to take up the role of what she called national leader. And she appealed to the security services to join the protesters.

KELLY: All right. Lucian Kim reporting there from Moscow.

Thank you.

KIM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LULLABY'S "DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.