Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic with more than 9 million people since 1994 and is running for the sixth time in the August 9th elections. He has long drawn international criticism to quell dissent, and the country’s secret police – still known as the KGB – often detain and harass opposition activists and independent journalists.
Friday’s demonstrations, in which thousands marched through the streets of 10 cities, were sparked by a series of arrests in which opposition activists called an attempt to remove popular candidates from the presidential race. Two of Lukashenko’s main opponents are currently in KGB and police custody: popular YouTube blog Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was detained in late May, and former Belgazprombank chairman Viktor Babariko, who was arrested on June 18th with his son and the head of the campaign Eduard Babariko, deputy according to their campaigns.
On Friday, Lukashenko said the protests were a foreign conspiracy and said the country’s law enforcement agencies were “thwarting the Maidan”, citing the 2014 revolution in Ukraine that toppled the country’s pro-Russian president.
“Don’t make me choose. If I behave in a democratic way, if I show them that I am so warm and fuzzy, I have a chance to lose the country completely,” Lukashenko added.
The country has no reliable independent political polls, but in early June, the “Sasha Three Percent” meme was circulating on Belarusian social media, citing a low number for Lukashenko in unofficial polls by independent online centers. Sasha is a nickname for Alexander.
Eduard Babarico’s girlfriend said in a Facebook post on Thursday that she had been questioned at the KGB detention center on charges of tax evasion. Victor Babarico’s lawyers said they had failed to visit their client. As of Saturday, the Babaricos are not released.
The arrest was preceded by a series of police raids on Babarico’s offices and apartments by members of his family. The head of the Belarusian State Control Committee, Ivan Tertel, said 20 current and former Babarico-linked bank executives had been arrested on various charges, including tax evasion and embezzlement, and acknowledged that “Babarico is the organizer of a criminal scheme”. .
Mr Lukashenko has said that several candidates running against him in this election have ties to Russia. Several Belarusian stores have called Babariko a “Kremlin-linked candidate” while running Belgazprombank, a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned energy corporation Gazprom, for the past 20 years. Babarico himself denied the allegation and asked the media not to call him a pro-Russian candidate. Lukashenko has long maintained close relations with Russia, which has close economic ties and a customs union with Belarus.
The Kremlin has also denied supporting Babarico and has denied allegations against Gazprom.
“The Kremlin has no candidates in the elections in Belarus,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said earlier this week.
Putin and Lukashenko spoke on the phone this week, but did not discuss the situation around Belgazprombank, according to Peskov. Lukashenko is expected to visit Moscow next week to attend a rescheduling Victory Day parade on Red Square.
The governments of the United Kingdom and the United States have condemned the arrests and called on the Belarusian authorities to respect the right of their citizens to peaceful protest.
“The United States urges the Belarusian government to abide by its international commitments to respect fundamental freedoms by allowing the Belarusian people to freely and peacefully assemble and release detainees, including journalists, covering tonight’s peaceful assembly,” the statement said. Twitter at the US Embassy in Minsk on Twitter.