Belarus opposition told to 'be ready' for democracy push as rumours of leader's ill health swirl
By Andrew Osborn
LONDON (Reuters) -Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told her supporters on Monday to be ready to grab any chance to turn her country into a democracy as speculation about the health of veteran President Alexander Lukashenko swirled.
Shortly after her message to supporters via Twitter, a Belarusian state news channel released a photo of Lukashenko, 68, at what it said was a military command centre in what would be his first public appearance in almost a week.
State TV later broadcast a clip of Lukashenko at what it said was a central air force command base. It showed him sitting in a chair talking to officers. Dressed in a military uniform, Lukashenko appeared to have a bandage on his left hand and to be short of breath at times.
Lukashenko, who once told Reuters he was "the last and only dictator in Europe", has ruled Belarus with an iron first since 1994, using his security forces to intimidate, beat and jail his opponents or force them to flee abroad.
A staunch ally of Russia, Lukashenko before Monday had not been pictured in public since May 9 when he reviewed Russia's annual military parade on Moscow's Red Square as a guest of President Vladimir Putin.
Looking tired and a little unsteady, Lukashenko was seen with a bandage on his right hand at the time. He skipped a lunch hosted by Putin. He also swerved his traditional post-parade stroll and was driven a short distance to an event instead.
Speculation about his health intensified on Sunday when Lukashenko missed a ceremony in Minsk amid unconfirmed media reports that he had been hospitalised. His place was taken by Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko. Lukashenko's office has declined to comment on his absence.
A truculent but long-standing ally of Moscow, Lukashenko has become more dependent on Russia for energy and loans since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, when he allowed Russian forces to use his country as a launch pad for what Moscow called its "special military operation."
Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband is in jail in Belarus and who herself fled for her own safety in 2020 as huge street protests broke out against Lukashenko only to be eventually crushed, said on Monday the opposition had to be ready for any scenario.
"There are many rumours about the dictator Lukashenko's health," Tsikhanouskaya she tweeted to supporters.
'BE WELL PREPARED'
"For us, it means only one thing: we should be well prepared for every scenario. To turn Belarus on the path to democracy and to prevent Russia from interfering. We need the international community to be proactive and fast."
Lukashenko brands domestic opponents as Western-orchestrated subversives and traitors.
Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya, said on Sunday that the opposition was working on a joint action plan "with democratic forces" for "when something happens." He gave no further details.
Flight tracking data showed that a special Russian government plane flew in and out of Minsk over the weekend. It was not clear who was on board.
Russia has troops garrisoned inside Belarus, the two countries' security and military organisations are highly integrated, and Moscow has repeatedly told the West to stay out of Belarus, which it regards as firmly within its own formerly Soviet sphere of influence.
When asked about Lukashenko on Monday, the Kremlin said it was best to be guided on the subject by official statements from the Belarusian authorities, whom it noted has so far not made any.
Under the constitution, if Lukashenko is incapacitated and unable to rule, his job is passed in a caretaker capacity to the speaker of the upper house of parliament - the Council of the Republic - until new elections are held.
The current speaker is Natalya Kochanova, 62, Lukashenko's former chief-of-staff who is regarded as a loyalist and hardliner.
Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military intelligence agency, said in televised comments that Kyiv had information about Lukashenko's health, but said he would not comment for various reasons.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; additional reporting by Dan Peleschuk in Kyiv; editing by Mark Heinrich)