On June 17, Viktor Babariko sent out a message to his supporters asking for one final push to gather signatures for his attempt to run against strongman Alexander Lukashenko for Belarus’s presidency.
“There is just one day left [to sign up],” he urged his backers, adding that he was on course to submit almost four times the 100,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot for the August 9 vote. “You are the best! You are already record-breakers!”
The next day, Mr Babariko was detained, in a move opposition activists say was an attempt by Mr Lukashenko to stall the most serious challenge to his 26 years at the helm of the former Soviet state, which occupies a geopolitically contentious position between Russia and the EU.
Belarus’s state control committee said Mr Babariko, who has denied any wrongdoing, had been held in connection with various offences, including laundering $430m offshore from Russian-owned Belgazprombank.
Mr Lukashenko subsequently claimed to have thwarted a foreign plot to destabilise the country. Ivan Tertel, head of the state control committee, said Mr Babariko was controlled by “puppet masters” under the thumb of “big bosses in Gazprom and higher up”.
Maxim Znak, a lawyer for Mr Babariko’s campaign, said the ex-banker would attempt to stay on the ballot even if he remained behind bars.
“Formally, being in jail isn’t a reason to stop the candidate from running and even winning,” Mr Znak said.
Viktor Babariko earlier this month. Opposition activists say his detention is a move to stall the most serious challenge to Mr Lukashenko in 26 years © Victor Babariko/AP
In the days after Mr Babariko’s detention, which itself followed that of another prominent Lukashenko critic, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, thousands of Belarusians took to the streets. Hundreds were detained. Despite this, opposition activists feel that, for the first time in decades, the president is vulnerable.
“I know people have said in past campaigns [that Lukashenko could lose], but this is the first time in my life that I believe it. I don’t want to say it is 100 per cent [that he will lose], but at the same time I really don’t know who will be our president after August 9,” said Olga Karatch, an activist from Vitebsk.
Others take a different view. “Lukashenko is very afraid of losing,” said Aleksandr Feduta, a former adviser to the president who was imprisoned after supporting the campaign of an opposition candidate in 2010. “He did so many stupid things . . . that he knows what will happen if he loses power. So he will do everything to avoid losing it.”
During his quarter of a century in power, Mr Lukashenko has faced sporadic protests, often linked to the tribulations of Belarus’s creaking economy, which is still dominated by inefficient state-owned companies that are a legacy of its Soviet past.
But in recent months, those economic grievances have been compounded by anger at his erratic response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The middle class, his own children, are turning on him,” said a European diplomat.
As most European countries have scrambled to stem the spread of the deadly virus, Mr Lukashenko has steadfastly refused to introduce any social-distancing measures. Instead, he has ridiculed concerns over the pandemic as hysteria, and suggested everything from communing with baby goats to drinking vodka as antidotes.
Belarus has had more than 58,000 cases of Covid-19. Neighbouring Poland, with four times the population, has had 32,000.
“Nobody’d ever been so careless with our lives in 26 years. No people can forgive and put up with that kind of treatment,” Mr Babariko said in an interview with Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy shortly before his arrest.
The growing opposition comes at an awkward time for Mr Lukashenko. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus has never strayed far from Moscow’s orbit. But in recent months, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been ratcheting up the pressure on Minsk to agree to deeper integration with its eastern neighbour, something which Mr Lukashenko has long sought to avoid.
“These are not western paid candidates . . . and these are not Russian candidates,” the EU diplomat said. “Russia doesn’t want them to win — they want Lukashenko to emerge weaker.”
Alexander Lukashenko, right, with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Minsk on June 19. The president has been under increasing pressure from Moscow © Maxim Guchek/BeITA/Handout via Reuters
In order to mitigate the pressure from Moscow, Mr Lukashenko has been tentatively seeking closer ties with the EU and US.
However, analysts said that if he now cracked down hard on opponents, he was likely to be shunned again by the west, leaving him ally-less in his dealings with Mr Putin.
“They know that they will have to return to all these questions at some stage and it would be much harder for them to do this in a situation where they have frozen relations with the west,” said Joerg Forbrig, from the German Marshall Fund of the US.
Yet even if Mr Lukashenko succeeds in turning his push for a sixth term as president into a formality, it is not clear that this will be the end of the protests, according to Mr Feduta.
“It’s one thing for him to win, and another for what happens afterwards. If people go to the squares [to protest], then it will be [another] Maidan,” he said, referring to the protests that ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in 2014.