MINSK – After 26 years in office, the authoritarian leader of Belarus is facing the toughest challenge yet as he runs for a sixth term.
Discontent over a worsening economy and the government's dismissive response to the coronavirus pandemic has helped fuel the country's largest opposition rallies since Alexander Lukashenko became its first and only elected president following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Rumblings among the ruling elite and a bitter rift with Russia, Belarus's main sponsor and ally, compound the reelection challenge facing the 65-year-old former state farm director on Sunday.
Lukashenko, who once acquired the nickname “Europe's last dictator” in the West for his relentless crackdowns on dissent, has made it clear he won't hesitate to again, if necessary, use force to quash any attempt by his opponents to protest the results of the presidential election.
On Saturday evening, police arrested at least 10 people as hundreds of opposition supporters drove through the center of Minsk, the capital, waving flags and brandishing clenched-fist victory signs from the vehicles' windows.
Election officials barred the president's two main prospective rivals from what is now a five-person race. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher and the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, has managed to draw strong support, with tens of thousands flocking to her campaign rallies.
The head of her campaign, Maria Moroz, was detained Saturday on charges of taking part in unauthorized protests and is likely to remain jailed until after the election, said Tsikhanouskaya's spokeswoman Anna Krasulina. It was not immediately clear what protests the charge referred to.
Krasulina later was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Tsikhanouskaya decided to leave her home and spend the night elsewhere because of concerns about her security following Moroz's arrest and the apparent detention of another staff member.
In an earlier interview with The Associated Press, Tsikhanouskaya described herself as a “symbol of change.”
“It was brewing inside for more than 20 years," Tsikhanouskaya said. "We were afraid all that time and no one dared to say a word. Now people vote for a symbol of change.”
Tsikhanouskaya has crisscrossed the country, tapping public frustration with Lukashenko's swaggering response to the pandemic and the country's stagnating Soviet-style economy.
The president has dismissed the coronavirus as “psychosis” and refused to introduce any restrictions to stem the outbreak, suggesting that Belarusians protect themselves against the disease with a daily shot of vodka, visits to sauna and hard work in the fields.
“They were telling us that the virus doesn't exist and dismissed it as ‘psychosis’ while tens of thousands of Belarusians have got sick," said Diana Golubovich, 54, a lawyer who attended Tsikhanouskaya's rally in Brest, a city on the border with Poland. “Suddenly everyone realized that the social-oriented state that Lukashenko was boasting about doesn't exist.”
Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, has reported more than 68,500 confirmed virus cases and 580 deaths in the pandemic. Critics have accused the authorities of manipulating the figures to downplay the death toll.
Lukashenko announced last month that he had been infected with the virus but had no COVID-19 symptoms and recovered quickly, allegedly thanks to doing sports. He defended his handling of the outbreak, saying that a lockdown would have doomed the nation's weakened economy.
Belarus still has sustained a severe economic blow after its leading exports customer, Russia, went into a pandemic-induced recession and other foreign markets shrank. Before the coronavirus, the country's state-controlled economy already had been stalled for years, stoking public frustration.
“Lukashenko lacks a plan to modernize the country. He has taken political freedoms away, and now he is depriving people of a chance for economic growth,” said Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the United States who planned to challenge Lukashenko for the presidency but fled to Russia with his children last month to avoid imminent arrest. “That is the main reason behind protests.”
When the presidential campaign began, authorities cracked down on the opposition with a renewed vigor. More than 1,300 protest participants have been detained since May, according to the Viasna human rights center.
Standing outside the Minsk Tractor Plant, one worker spoke about his low salary, rising prices and “no glimpse of hope” in Belarus.
“No one trusts the government's promises any more,” said Anton Rubankevich, 46, who makes the equivalent of $480 a month. “If this president stays, we will continue falling into a pit.”
Political observers say the election campaign also exposed divisions among the Belarusian elite as some of its members entered politics for the first time.
Along with former ambassador Tsepkalo, the head of a major Russia-controlled bank contemplated running against Lukashenko. The well-connected potential rival, Viktor Babariko, was jailed in May on money laundering and tax evasion charges that he has rejected as politically driven.
In what the political opposition and independent observers regarded as an attempt to shore up the incumbent's sagging support, Belarusian authorities last week arrested 33 Russian military contractors and charged them with plans to stage “mass riots.”
The arrest of the Russians marked an unprecedented spike in tensions between neighboring Belarus and Russia.
When Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1996, Lukashenko aspired to use it to eventually lead a unified state as the successor to Russia's ailing president, Boris Yeltsin. The tables turned after Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000; the Belarusian leader began resisting what he saw as a Kremlin push for control over Belarus.
Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political expert based in Minsk, said he thinks the Kremlin hopes the stormy election campaign in Belarus will help erode Lukashenko's grip on power and make him more receptive to a closer integration of the two countries.
“Moscow is interested not in Lukashenko's ouster, but his maximal weakening so that he comes out of that campaign with undermined legitimacy, spoiled relations with the West and the economy in a poor shape,” Klaskovsky said. “A weakened and emaciated Lukashenko would be a gift for Moscow."
While election officials are likely to declare Lukashenko the winner by a landslide, his problems will not end with the vote.
“It will be about 80% of the vote for Lukashenko, so that his entourage doesn't think that the leader has grown weaker,” he predicted. “The government has enough resources and brute force to keep the power and suppress protests, but it lacks the answer to the main question about the path of Belarus' development. Lukashenko will undoubtedly win, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory.”
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.