16th Aug 2022

Belarus leader's power creeps as opposition swells

  • Alexander Lukashenko is prepared to do anything to keep his grip on power (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko is now facing the biggest challenge to his strong-arm leadership in decades, and is prepared to use brutal force to keep his grip on power.

With elections looming on 9 August, the so-called 'last dictator of Europe' is for the first time facing challenges from an opposition rooted in a wider public backlash over his bungled handling of Covid-19.

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In the absence of any support or government help, others throughout the country mobilised to tackle a virus that has infected over 66,000 and killed hundreds.

Once the election date was announced in May, the groundswell of social mobilisation around the pandemic then shifted its attention towards Lukashenko, a man once described as an "arse-kisser" by the country's first head of state.

"It is a threat that Lukashenko hasn't faced since the very beginning of his term," said Joerg Forbrig, a senior fellow and director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund, on Wednesday (22 July). Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since 1994, an ex-Soviet state which borders EU members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Out of the candidates running for the race, three have profiles that have also caught analysts on Belarus by surprise.

Among them is the populist blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who toured the poorer regions of the country and filmed people's grievances.

Many of his recorded testimonies came from those typically viewed as Lukashenko's support base.

But before he could register his candidacy, Tikhanovsky was arrested and jailed.

Critics say the charges against him are bogus and are part of Lukashenko's increasingly heavy-handed repression tactics.

Tikhanovsky's wife Svetlana has since taken his place and is the only independent candidate left. The other two candidates are former diplomat Valentin Tsepkalo and ex-banker Viktor Babariko.

Both have presented themselves as experts, with the skill sets needed to run a country gripped in a recession.

They also belong to an elite section of society that has for the first time in decades stood up against Lukashenko.

"This is something that really hasn't happened in a really long time," said Forbrig, noting the most-recent challenge from candidates with similar elite profiles against Lukashenko was in the late 1990s.

Babariko has secured several hundred thousand signatures for his candidacy, with many pinning their hopes on him to fix a shattered economy.

But, along with his son, he too was arrested - on money laundering allegations.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called Babariko's detention "politically motivated".

Meanwhile, Tsepkalo was told he hadn't collected enough reliable signatures to present himself, by an election commission that has helped rig the polls in the past. The same commission on Wednesday also decided to reduce the number of observers allowed at polling stations, due to the pandemic.

A handful of other candidates viewed as stooges of the regime are also registered.

Svetlana Tikhanovsky has since united her campaign with those of Babariko and Tsepkalo and is steadily gaining momentum.

Last weekend, hundreds if not thousands gathered in Minsk to show their support.

Lukashenko shaken

The groundswell has shaken Lukashenko into dramatic action.

He has since claimed that to become president, one must first have served in the army. This effectively excludes female candidates like Svetlana Tikhanovsky.

He recently reshuffled his government, ousting his prime minister and replacing the moderate voices with hardliners.

His crackdown on the opposition, bloggers, journalists and on peaceful protestors has also been among the most flagrant under this reign.

Hundreds have been detained, beaten, and threatened into silence.

Among them is Ulasenkou Ihar, a cook who was detained and fined following a protest against Babariko's arrest.

Ihar had been accused of slandering a police officer on social media and was sent to a prison in Okrestino.

In an emailed statement to EUobserver, Ihar said he was sentenced for 15 days and was subjected to police abuse and ill-treatment.

He was released this week with a fine that is around equivalent of a monthly wage. Had he been active in politics, he would have been beaten as well, he said.

A source with connections to Lukashenko's inner circle says the regime is ready to increase the repression with brutal suppression of protests - and then blame it on Russian interference.

The same source said billions have also been stashed away in Qatar should things turn sour for Lukashenko and that a hidden pro-Western opposition of officials is being formed behind his back.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has issued statements and is taking a wait and see approach to the elections.

"We do not want to prejudge any decisions we may take. We will react according to the situation as it develops. We will of course continue to urge Belarus, both in our bilateral contacts and publicly, to uphold fundamental freedoms in this election period," said Nabila Massrali, EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, in an emailed statement.

She noted that the EU maintains regular diplomatic relations with the Belarusian authorities and that the ministry of foreign affairs, headed by Vladimir Makei, is their first interlocutor.

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