Lukashenko fights coronavirus, protests and tensions in Russia

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Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of opposition figure Valery Tsepkalo, prevented from running for president, presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova, campaign leader of Viktor Babaryko, pose at a press conference in Minsk on July 17, 2020.SERGEI GAPON | AFP | Getty Images

Belarus’ most competitive presidential election campaign in decades saw a wave of discontent against the authoritarian leader of the Eastern European country coincide with a dramatic escalation in tensions with Russia.Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, 65, is seeking his sixth term after having been in power since 1994.

The opposition united behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 37, who, although initially reluctant to run after her husband was prevented from running and jailed by the authorities, ultimately decided to challenge Lukashenko.

The Belarusian electoral commission prevented two other political rivals from running against the president. One of them, Viktor Babariko, 56, was jailed on what his supporters see as false accusations.

The other, Valery Tsepkalo, 55, fled to Russia after alleged reports from security officials suggested he may soon be arrested and stripped of his parental rights.

Voters will vote on Sunday.

“This deserves attention because a similar situation in Ukraine has resulted in a global geopolitical confrontation,” Christopher Granville, managing director of EMEA and global policy research at TS Lombard, told CNBC by telephone.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a visit to Internal Troops Unit No 3214 of the Belarusian Interior Ministry, two weeks ahead of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election.

Nikolai Petro | TASS | Getty Images

The “big difference” between Belarus and Ukraine, he argued, is that when Kiev endured a faltering strongman leader amid a lack of popular support in 2014, Russia was keenly aware diplomatic language used in a 2008 NATO summit statement that declared Ukraine and Georgia to become a member of the military alliance.

“Therefore, the signal for Russia was very clear that, at the earliest opportunity, the Americans will rebound Ukraine into NATO,” said Granville. “And that is why, when you had violent regime change in Ukraine six years later, in 2014, Russia moved extremely quickly to secure what it saw as its vital interests. ”

While the NATO context is not the same when it comes to Belarus, Granville made it clear that the upcoming elections “could end badly”. He warned that it was “absolutely realistic” to foresee a scenario in which Lukashenko would falsify the result of the vote to claim victory and orchestrate a “brutal” response from the security forces to quell mass protests.

“You could envision a total revolution in Central and Eastern Europe,” Granville said.

The Belarusian government did not respond to a request for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Wagner military group

Before the vote, Belarusian authorities arrested more than 30 suspected Russian mercenaries accusing them of plotting terrorist acts to destabilize the country.

Russia has rejected the claims, demanding that Belarus immediately release the security contractors.

The Belarusian State Security Committee said on Wednesday it had arrested 32 employees of the secret Russian private military group Wagner outside Minsk, along with another person being held in the south of the country.

Belarus 1 state broadcaster broadcast footage of the arrest of Russians near the capital last week.

The head of the Belarusian security council also said authorities would be looking for 200 other Russian mercenaries suspected of having entered the country to cause civil unrest ahead of the elections.

Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (front) talks to journalists outside the office of the Belarusian Central Election Commission. Belarus is due to hold a presidential election on August 9, 2020.

Natalia Fedosenko | TASS | Getty Images

“Voting has become surprisingly competitive due to widespread popular discontent with the economy and Lukashenko’s mismanagement of the coronavirus,” Daragh McDowell, Europe chief and senior Russia analyst, told CNBC at Verisk Maplecroft.

As a result, McDowell said Lukashenko made “increasingly sharp statements of foreign interference, leading to thinly veiled threats of mass repression as his grip on power became less stable.” ”

Belarus’s longtime leader – sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator” – has refused to implement lockdown restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, he allegedly told Belarusians to drink vodka, go to saunas and go back to work. The president also claimed that other countries had imposed restrictive measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 as an act of “frenzy and psychosis”.

Lukashenko said last week that he caught Covid-19 and recovered without showing symptoms.

To date, more than 68,000 Covid-19 infections have been reported in Belarus, with 567 related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Analysts told CNBC that while the lack of available poll data made it difficult to understand voter consensus, there was substantial evidence that the government’s response to the coronavirus was a major driver of civil unrest.

‘All you have to do is give us a call’

“Everything is very murky,” Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, told CNBC via email.

He argued that icy diplomatic relations between Washington and Minsk had “warmed up” in recent months, highlighting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Belarus earlier this year.

It was the first time that a US Secretary of State had visited the country of about 9.5 million people for 26 years. During a joint press conference with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei on February 1, Pompeo said the United States was prepared to supply Minsk with all the oil it needed. “All you have to do is call us,” he said at the time.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gestures as he speaks at a joint press conference with Belarusian Foreign Minister in Minsk on February 1, 2020.

KEVIN LAMARQUE | AFP | Getty Images

Pompeo did not lift sanctions against senior Belarusian officials during his visit. The measures were put in place in 2006 amid concerns about free and fair elections and human rights violations.

However, Belarus’ relationship with its traditional ally, Russia, has deteriorated. Before the vote, Ash said Moscow appeared to be supporting the opposition in order to oust Belarus’ longtime leader.

In the event that Lukashenko guarantees that the opposition loses the vote, Ash wondered whether the prospect of subsequent protests could see Moscow siding with the protesters when the United States might end up inadvertently backing Lukashenko.

“The world is really upside down,” he said.

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