TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday reshuffled his top officials in what observers saw as part of maneuvering ahead of the 2025 presidential election.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the country of 9.5 million with an iron hand for three decades and declared his intention to seek a seventh term next year, replaced his chief of staff along with the country’s foreign minister and several other senior officials.

Lukashenko has unleashed a sweeping crackdown on the opposition in response to massive protests that were triggered by his disputed reelection in the August 2020 presidential election that the opposition and the West have denounced as rigged.

More than 35,000 people have been arrested and thousands have been brutally beaten in custody. Dozens of independent news organizations and rights groups have been shut down and journalists imprisoned. The United States and the European Union have responded to the crackdown with an array of sanctions.

As part of the government changes announced Thursday, Lukashenko named Maksim Ryzhankou as the new foreign minister to replace Sergei Aleinik, who had spent less than two years on the job.

Some saw the appointment as Ryzhankou, 52 as a sign of Lukashenko’s hopes to negotiate the softening of Western sanctions.

Pavel Latushkа, an opposition leader who fled the country under the authorities’ pressure after the 2020 vote, described Ryzhankou as a “supporter of talks with Western nations.”

“Ryzhankou’s task is to try to find instruments and mechanisms to resume a dialogue between Minsk and Western countries, something that Aleinik has failed to accomplish,” Latushka said. “Lukashenko hopes that the West will have to resume a dialogue with him after his 2025 reelection, and Ryzhankou’s mission is to assist that.”

Latushka claimed that Ryzhankou, who had previously served as Lukashenko’s deputy chief of staff, had recently met with French envoys to discuss ways to resume a dialogue.

At the same time, Lukashenko appointed Belarus’ ambassador to Russia, Dmitry Krutoi, as the new presidential chief of staff. Krutoi, 43, is widely seen as a proponent of strong relations with Russia.

Lukashenko has relied on close ties with Russia and provided his country as a staging ground for the war in Ukraine. In 2023, Russia also moved some of its tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.

“In the run-up to the 2025 election, Lukashenko is resuming his favorite balancing act between the East and the West, sending signals of loyalty to Moscow but at the same time making the Kremlin nervous about the prospect of normalization of ties with the West,” Latushka said.

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