The “last dictator of Europe” for re-election, faces an unprecedented challenge to his reign

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Belarus will conclude a presidential election on Sunday. The preferred candidate to win is the same as the past 26 years – Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader who has ruled the former Soviet country since 1994.

There is no doubt about the outcome of the vote, but instead of the well-controlled coronation that was expected, Lukashenko, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, faces an unprecedented challenge to his power.

Ahead of the elections, Belarus saw weeks of protests, fueled in part by anger over Lukashenko’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Tens of thousands of people took part in peaceful rallies in the capital Minsk, along with thousands more in small towns across the country. A rally in Minsk last month was the biggest protest in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union.

At the same time as it faces popular discontent, Lukashenko faces other challenges on several fronts. Discontent is greatest among the Belarusian elite and, above all, its relationship with Belarus’ main sponsor, Russia, has deteriorated.

“So far, nothing has ever seriously threatened his power. Now, for the first time, he could lose it, ”said Alexander Feduta, who was a campaign aide to Lukashenko in the 1990s and is now a critical analyst of him.

The protests gathered around three women, who are now leading the attempt to remove Lukashenko from office. They are headed by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher who, until a few weeks ago, was a stay-at-home mom.

Tikhanovskaya reluctantly stepped into the role after her husband, Sergey Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger was jailed and barred from running for office.

The other main opposition campaigns united behind Tikhanovskaya. She is joined by Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband, Valery Tsepkalo, fled Belarus with their children after being excluded from the elections. The third woman, Maria Kolesnikova, was the campaign leader of another popular candidate, Viktor Babariko, a former banker jailed just before the elections for alleged fraud.

“My first step was just for love, my husband’s love,” Tikhanovskaya told ABC News in an interview in Minsk on Wednesday.

“At that point, I saw how many people supported him and how many people want these changes, how many people are tired and I felt responsible for all of these people,” she said.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign platform is simple: release political prisoners, then hold new free and fair elections within six months. She said she didn’t want to remain a politician if Lukashenko resigned.

The three women focused on a wave of dissatisfaction with Lukashenko, based on anger at a poor economy and accumulated fatigue with Lkashenko. But he was shaken by Lukashenko’s rejection of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lukashenko has scoffed at the pandemic as global hysteria and refused to impose meaningful quarantine measures on Belarus, despite calls from the World Health Organization. The government’s death statistics for COVID-19 have remained strangely low, even though the official tally shows there have been at least 68,000 cases in Belarus.

However, many Belarusians have taken their own steps, keeping their children home after school and forming their own groups of volunteers to collect protective gear for health workers.

Yaroslav Romanchuk, an economist who ran as a candidate against Lukashenko in 2010, said the authorities’ response reminded him of the Soviet reaction to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

“It was negligence, stupidity and arrogance in the same bottle. And that’s what made people so angry, ”Romanchuk said. “The first type of sign of massive protests was when parents, like me, didn’t let our kids go to school because of the coronavirus. ”

Lukashenko responded to the protests by belittling women and throwing them on foreign powers, whom he accused of seeking a revolution like the one in Ukraine in 2014. He attacked not only Western countries but also more directly Moscow.

Arrested Belarusian security forces last week said they detained 33 Russian mercenaries at a resort near Minsk who they said were sent to destabilize the elections. Belarusian state television broadcast a video of the special forces detaining the men, who they said belonged to Wagner, a catch-all name for a private military contractor linked to the Kremlin deployed in Syria and other hot spots in the world.

Lukashenko claimed to have uncovered foreign plots before the previous election, and many analysts said they suspected it was at least in part a pre-election spectacle. But the men detained this time also appear to be real, with some previously known to journalists as having fought in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has expressed interest in the extradition of some of them.

Russian officials said the men were on their way to work as security contractors in an unnamed South American country.

Whatever the reality, the incident highlights the mistrust between Moscow and Lukashenko, which has worsened in recent years and now poses an uncomfortable problem for Lukashenko.

Russia and Belarus are already strongly integrated, but recently the Kremlin pressured Lukashenko to accept a deeper union. Seeking to retain more independence, Lukashenko turned to the West, notably restoring relations with the United States, which, for the first time in more than a decade, is due to send an ambassador to Minsk this year. .

The fear for Lukashenko now, analysts say, is that the Kremlin may be open to his being replaced by another figure, provided they are friends of Russia.

“It is less and less likely that at a future critical moment of political tension in Belarus, the Kremlin will come to the aid of Lukashenko,” Artyom Schraibman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote this week.

None of the last six elections in Belarus have been deemed free and fair by international observers. The main questions asked by analysts are how many will protest if the vote seems heavily fabricated and if Lukashenko is using force to disperse the protesters.

In recent days, Lukashenko has also visited army bases, and state television has shown heavily armed riot police performing drills to disperse protesters. And the authorities began to block large peaceful gatherings led by Tikhanovskaya. On Thursday, soldiers set up a military camp in a park in Minsk where his campaign had hoped to gather tens of thousands. Some small gatherings were also dispersed with arrests.

Tikhanovskaya said if people protested after the election, she would join them. She said if she was arrested after the vote, she hoped an outcry from other countries would follow.

Protesters said the atmosphere was different from previous years, saying much of the fear was gone, although that could change quickly. A violent crackdown could, however, trigger a worse crisis for Lukashenko, some observers have said.

“He’s losing power. He is losing it gradually, step by step, and he would lose power even more quickly “if Lukashenko responded forcefully to the protests on the days of the August 9 and 10 elections, Romanchuk said.

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