Belarusian authorities have stepped up their crackdown on opponents of strongman Alexander Lukashenko, as the eastern European country holds a presidential election on Sunday.
Police on Saturday detained the campaign manager of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Mr Lukashenko’s main challenger. Another key figure in Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign, Maria Kolesnikova, was also briefly detained on Saturday night. Six other campaign staff have also been held.
Mr Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, has ruled the former Soviet state for 26 years, earning the moniker of Europe’s “last dictator” for his ruthless suppression of dissent.
But despite the fact that two of his main rivals were jailed ahead of Sunday’s election, and a third is in exile, the 65-year-old faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from Ms Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher and wife of one of the jailed men.
The political novice, who was allowed to run in her husband’s stead, has toured the country, drawing huge crowds, including 63,000 at one rally in Minsk that local activists say was the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Ms Tikhanovskaya has tapped into widespread discontent with Belarus’s stagnating economy, as well as anger at Mr Lukashenko’s refusal to introduce any form of social distancing to fight coronavirus, which he has dismissed as a “psychosis” treatable by drinking vodka, or driving a tractor.
“People are very angry at Lukashenko for lots of things. Some people for the reform of pensions, some people for the education system,” said Olga Katach, an activist from Vitebsk. “[But] Covid was the red button that started the . . . political mobilisation of people. People understood that the situation is dangerous for them, and that they have to react.”
Belarus, with a population of 9.5m, has recorded more than 68,000 cases of Covid-19. Neighbouring Poland, with four times the population, has reported only 51,000 cases.
Mr Lukashenko is expected to declare himself as the victor in Sunday’s poll. But as support for Ms Tikhanovskaya has surged, he has ratcheted up the pressure on his opponents, who he claims are backed by unnamed foreign “puppetmasters”. Belarus also arrested 33 Russian mercenaries it accused of working with Ms Tikhanovskaya’s husband to “destabilise the situation” ahead of the elections.
As he cast his ballot on Sunday morning, Mr Lukashenko told state media that he would work to prevent “chaos or some sort of clashes, conflict or civil war” from breaking out.
“As [Russian president Vladimir] Putin told me the other day: we’re in the same boat, and we’ll both drown if they rock it,” he said.
Local activists say that more than 1,300 people have been arrested since May for participating in peaceful protests. Belarusian authorities also prevented Ms Tikhanovskaya from holding rallies in the final days before the election and even cancelled a football match she planned to attend after fans chanted protest slogans at another game.
Two DJs who played “We Want Changes” — a rock protest anthem from the collapse of the USSR — at a state-sponsored concert earlier this week that Ms Tikhanovskaya’s supporters gatecrashed were jailed for 10 days.
Belarus has not invited foreign observers to monitor the poll. Ms Tikhankoskaya told the Financial Times last week that she would encourage her supporters to challenge results if she believed they had been falsified, but insisted that protests would be peaceful.
Officials said more than 40 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in early voting.
As Belarusians went to the polls on Sunday, there were also reports of problems with internet access.
Belarusian media reported that mobile internet was disrupted in a number of cities, including the capital Minsk, Vitebsk, Rahachow and Braslau. Belarus’s government cyber security centre said the cause was a distributed denial of service attack on servers hosting the sites of its interior ministry and KGB.