Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic with more than 9 million people since 1994, and ran for the sixth time in elections scheduled for August 9th. It has long drawn international criticism for quelling 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, sparked a series of arrests, in what opposition activists called an attempt to pull popular candidates out of the presidential race. Lukashenko’s two main opponents are currently in KGB and police custody: popular YouTube blogger Sergei Tikhanovskiy, who was detained in late May, and former Belgazprombank president Viktor Babaryko, who was arrested on June 18 along with his son and campaign leader Eduard Babaryko, according to their campaigns.
On Friday, Lukashenko said the protests were a foreign conspiracy and claimed that law enforcement “thwarted Maidan”, alluding to the 2014 revolution in Ukraine that overthrew the country’s pro-Russian president.
“Don’t make me choose. If I act democratically, if I show them that I am so warm and vague, I have a chance to lose the country completely,” Lukashenko added.
The country does not have a reliable independent political election, but in early June the “Sasha Three Percent” meme was circulating on Belarusian social media, citing a low level for Lukashenko in unofficial polls from independent websites. Sasha is a nickname for Alexander.
Eduard Babaryk’s girlfriend said on Facebook on Thursday that she had been questioned at the KGB detention center on charges of tax evasion. Viktor Babaryk’s lawyers said they were unable to visit their client. Babarykos have not been released since Saturday.
The arrest was preceded by a series of police searches in Babaryk’s offices and the apartments of members of his family. The head of Belarus’ state control committee, Ivan Tertel, said 20 current and former Babaryk-related bank executives had been arrested on various charges, including tax evasion and embezzlement, and admitted that “Babaryko was the organizer of a criminal scheme”.
Lukashenko claimed that several candidates running against him in this election have ties to Russia. Several Belarusian outlets have called Babaryko a “Kremlin-linked candidate” as he has run Belgazprombank, a subsidiary of Russia’s state energy corporation Gazprom, for the past 20 years. Babaryko himself denied the allegations and asked the media not to call him a pro-Russian candidate. Lukashenko has long nurtured close relations with Russia, which has close economic ties and a customs union with Belarus.
The Kremlin has also denied supporting Babaryko and dismissed accusations against Gazprom.
“The Kremlin has no candidates in the Belarusian elections,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier this week.
Putin and Lukashenko exchanged a phone call this week, but did not discuss the situation around Belgazprombank, Peskov says. Lukashenko is expected to visit Moscow next week to attend the redesigned Victory Day parade in 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 calls on the Belarusian government to maintain its international obligations 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 US Embassy in Minsk tweeted.