By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday a "fifth column" was plotting to overthrow him with the help of foreign-backed fighters, days before a planned street protest in Minsk against a new tax.
Lukashenko, who has ruled ex-Soviet Belarus with an iron hand for 23 years, is grappling with unrest over a plan to force the unemployed or those in part-time work to pay $250 a year - widely referred to in Belarus as a "tax on social parasites".
The president said security forces had recently detained "a couple dozen of fighters" who were being used by foreign parties to stage uprisings and were being trained in camps in Ukraine with money funneled through Poland and Lithuania.
"There are some people bent on blowing up the situation in the country. I call them the fifth column. They are not an opposition. They want to stage a rebellion in the country," state agency Belta quoted Lukashenko as saying. "Their dream is to topple the government and overthrow the president."
Lukashenko has sought to improve ties with the West against the backdrop of cooling relations with ex-Soviet master Russia.
He has pardoned several political prisoners, spurring the European Union to lift sanctions against a country once described by the United States as "Europe's last dictatorship".
The president briefly introduced the tax before shelving it in response to protests. It has now been postponed until the end of the year but protests have continued, with the next one scheduled to take place in the capital on Saturday.
Independent analysts said the Lukashenko's announcement was designed to scare people off protest action.
"This rhetoric is for domestic consumption. The purpose is to discredit the protests and prevent people from taking part,"
said Denis Melyantsov at the Belarussian Institute for Strategic Studies.
Belarus has been in recession since 2015 and the protesters, many of them older people though still below pensionable age, say there is no work for them.
"The authorities are preparing to use force, and this requires justifications," said Andrei Yahorau, head of the Center for European Transformation think-tank.
"They need an enemy. The government wants to show that the reason for the protests is external interference rather than popular discontent."
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Mark Heinrich)