Lukashenko has ruled over the former Soviet Republic for more than 9 million since 1994 and is running for the sixth time in the August 9 elections. He has been criticized internationally for suppressing dissent, and the country’s secret police – still known as the KGB – frequently harass opposition activists and independent journalists.
Friday’s demonstrations, which included thousands of protests on 10 city streets, sparked by a series of arrests, with opposition activists calling popular candidates an attempt to pull them out of the presidential race. Lukashenko’s two main rivals are currently under KGB and police detention: veteran YouTube blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was taken into custody at the end of May, and former BelgazePrombank chairman Victor Babarico, who was arrested on June 18, along with his son and campaign manager Edward Babarico.
On Friday, Lukashenko called the protests a foreign conspiracy, referring to the 2014 revolution in Ukraine that ousted the country’s pro-Russian president, saying the country’s law enforcement was “blocking Maidan.”
“Don’t choose me. If I act democratically and show them that I am too warm and cumbersome, I have the opportunity to lose the country altogether,” Lukashenko said.
The country has no credible independent political polling, but at the beginning of June, “Sasha’s three percent” was trending on Belarusian social media, with Lukashenko claiming to have little in the way of informal elections from independent online tablets. Nicknamed Sasha Alexander.
Edward Babarico’s girlfriend said in a Facebook post on Thursday that she is being questioned at the KGB detention center on tax evasion charges. Lawyers for Victor Babarico said they were unable to visit their client. As of Saturday, Babaricos had not been released.
Prior to his arrest, there had been a series of police raids on Babarico’s offices and his family’s apartments. 20 state and former bank executives have been arrested in connection with Babarico on various charges including tax evasion and embezzlement, according to Belarusian State Control Head Ivan Turtel and admitting that “Babarico is a criminal scheme administrator”.
Lukashenko said many of the candidates running for him in this election have ties to Russia. Many Belarusian outlets have called Babarico a “Kremlin-linked candidate” for the past 20 years when he runs BelgazePrombank, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom. Babarico denied the allegation and urged the media not to call him a pro-Russia candidate. Lukashenko has long established close ties with Russia, which has close economic ties and a customs union with Belarus.
The Kremlin also denied supporting Babarico and dismissed the allegations against Gazprom.
“There are no candidates in the Kremlin Belarusian elections,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said earlier this week.
Putin and Lukashenko exchanged a phone call this week, but Peskov said they would not discuss the circumstances surrounding the BelgazePrombank. Lukashenko is scheduled to visit Moscow next week to take part in the re-scheduled Victory Day Parade in Red Square.
The UK and US governments have condemned the arrests and urged Belarusian authorities to respect the rights of its citizens for peaceful protest.
“The United States will appeal to international commitments to respect the fundamental freedoms of the Belarusian people by allowing them to freely, peacefully assemble and release detainees, including journalists covering the peace conference tonight,” the US Embassy on Minsk’s Twitter account said in a tweet.