Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya will meet on August 24 with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in a sign of deepening U.S. involvement in finding a peaceful resolution to a disputed presidential election in Belarus.
Tsikhanouskaya's team said on August 22 that the No. 2 U.S. diplomat would meet Tsikhanouskaya in Lithuania, where she fled following the contested August 9 vote in Belarus that has triggered two weeks of protests.
Biegun also will meet Lithuania's defense and foreign ministers to discuss the situation in Belarus and bilateral and defense matters, Lithuania's Foreign Ministry said. Biegun will travel on to Russia later in the week.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax on August 22 that talks in Moscow would go beyond the subject of Belarus.
"In addition, we're meaning to have an in-depth discussion with him of all things related to Russian-U.S. relations in various aspects," Ryabkov said.
Earlier on August 22, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered his defense minister and westernmost military forces to adopt "the most stringent measures" to protect the country's borders in the face of what he suggested was a foreign-backed plan for a "color revolution" in the country.
His appearance, in fatigues at a military training ground at Hrodno near the border with Poland, was the latest public indication that the embattled five-term president intends to weather unprecedented street protests urging him to step down after the disputed presidential election.
"Everything is clear," Lukashenka was quoted as saying to state-run Belta news agency. "As we expected, everything is going according to a plan for a color revolution with the agitation of the internal political situation in the country."
Lukashenka cited an unconfirmed "movement of NATO troops to the borders."
Belarus shares its western border with NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
"We see that NATO troops are seriously stirring in the immediate vicinity of our borders on the territory of Poland and Lithuania," the Russian TASS news agency quoted Lukashenka as saying.
NATO said the claims were "baseless".
"As we have already made clear, NATO poses no threat to Belarus or any other country and has no military buildup in the region," it said in a statement.
Demonstrations and strikes have erupted across Belarus to protest what critics call a rigged election in which Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory.
In his latest threat, Lukashenka said he would close factories that have seen protests from workers who traditionally formed a base of political support.
"If a factory is not working then let's put a lock on its gate from Monday, let's stop it," Russian RIA-Novosti news agency cited Lukashenka as saying. "People will calm down and we will decide whom to invite (to work) next."
Lukashenka also expressed confidence that the Russia-led that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) would support him in any confrontation with the organizers of protests in the country.
He wanted to warn people "sitting abroad in the neighboring countries" that the border of Belarus is the border of the Russian-backed military alliance, and "a response will be adequate," he said, according to Interfax.
Tsikhanouskaya, who entered the race after her husband was jailed shortly after announcing his planned candidacy, told Reuters on August 22 that Lukashenka would have to leave sooner or later.
Tsikhanouskaya said she had received calls from international leaders, including Britain and Germany, and had asked only that they support the Belarusian public and respect Belarusian sovereignty.
Asked by Reuters about Belarus's powerful neighbor to the east, she said she had no reason to contact President Vladimir Putin but would similarly hope that Russia respects Belarusian sovereignty.
Tsikhanouskaya, who has offered to serve a transitional role and help de-escalate the situation, said she hoped to return to Belarus at some point but that she currently felt safer in Lithuania.
Thousands of people have been arrested and reports of torture and disappearances have increased in a brutal crackdown on protesters.
In Minsk on August 22, a demonstration by women wearing white clothing included the formation of a human chain against police brutality as they demand to release political prisoners, an end to the violence, and punishment for all guilty parties.
The European Union has said it does not recognize the August 9 presidential vote because of irregularities that ended up giving the strongman just over 80 percent of the ballot, and the United States has expressed support for an independent international examinations of “electoral irregularities.”
Tsikhanouskaya said on August 21 that she had filed an official complaint against the announced results, saying her compatriots "will never accept" Lukashenka's continued rule.
"It should be clear to the president that there is a need for change," Tsikhanouskaya said at her first press conference, on August 21, since fleeing to Lithuania last week amid fears of arrest. "I hope that good sense prevails and the people will be heard and there will be new elections."
Official results gave Tsikhanouskaya about 10 percent of the vote, but she claims to have actually received between 60 and 70 percent.
Belarusian prosecutors said on August 20 that they had opened a criminal investigation into national-security-related charges against the founders of an opposition council set up to negotiate the transition of power amid the huge protests.
The council members have rejected the accusations and insisted that their actions have been in full conformity with Belarusian law.
Belarusian authorities have also blocked access to dozens of websites and proxy VPN services, and persecuted and in some cases expelled journalists.