Viktar Sheiman, one of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's closest allies and a figure believed to have run death squads in the past, has abruptly resigned.
In a video of a June 11 meeting at the presidential palace in Minsk, Lukashenka accepted Sheiman’s resignation, but told the 63-year-old hard-liner “not to go too far and lend a shoulder where it is necessary.”
It wasn't clear why Sheiman, who most recently served as the head of the presidential administration, was resigning.
Sheiman has served alongside Lukashenka under various top-level security positions since the authoritarian leader took power in 1994.
Though their relationship has had some “ups and downs” over the decades, Sheiman “was always nearby” Lukashenka, Grigory Ioffe, a Radford University professor who has authored works on the Belarusian leader, told RFE/RL.
Sheiman’s departure comes at a time when Lukashenka is facing the biggest challenge to his rule since taking power almost 27 years ago.
The country has been roiled by political upheaval since Lukashenka claimed he won a sixth term as president in elections last August. The opposition launched large-scale protests in response, arguing the elections were rigged in his favor.
While the protests have lost momentum in recent months, Lukashenka has turned into an international pariah over a brutal crackdown on dissent.
In the coming weeks, he faces potentially devastating economic sanctions, including on state-run enterprises, from the United States and European Union for human rights abuses and the diversion of a Ryanair plane to arrest a dissident journalist.
During the 1994 presidential election, Lukashenka claimed he was the target of an assassination attempt and said Sheiman saved his life, recalled Ioffe.
Following his victory in the election that year, Lukashanka tapped Sheiman, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, to serve as secretary of the Security Council, a role he would hold until 2000.
During those years, Lukashenka moved to crush all opposition and subordinate the newly independent nation to his rule.
Several political opponents, including former Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko and former Central Election Commission Chairman Viktar Honcha, disappeared in 1999.
In 2001, two former Belarusian police investigators who fled the country claimed that Sheiman oversaw a death squad that had been responsible for more than 30 assassinations and disappearances, including Zakharenko and Honcha.
The United States and Europe would later impose sanctions on Sheiman, claiming he was responsible for the unresolved disappearances.
Sheiman would go on to serve in various positions, including prosecutor-general, though Ioffe said he did not possess the legal background for such a position, and chief of staff.
Concurrently, Lukashenka tapped him to develop ties with authoritarian regimes in Latin America and Africa, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
Belarus has been seeking to sell machinery, including weapons, to other foreign nations to lessen its economic dependency on Russia.
During their June 11 meeting, Lukashenka said he would like Sheiman to continue to oversee Cuba, Venezuela, and Africa “until I decide who will take care of them.”