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Belarus: Police arrest activists, journalists ahead of vote

August 8, 2020

Strongman Alexander Lukashenko faces a tough test in presidential elections on Sunday, as authorities arrest critics and opponents, including the campaign manager of a leading opposition candidate and Russian activists.

Belarusian KGB officers detain a Russian man in a sanitarium outside in Minsk, Belarus
Image: picture-alliance/AP/State TV and Radio Company of Belarus/Belarusian KGB

Belarusian authorities have made several high profile arrests ahead of Sunday's presidential vote, which sees Alexander Lukashenko seeking a sixth term in office.

Maria Moroz, campaign manager of presidential hopeful Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was reportedly detained on Saturday, according to a spokeswoman.

"She probably won't be released before Monday," said Anna Krasulina.

Moroz was also briefly detained by the Interior Ministry on Thursday. It was not immediately clear on what grounds Moroz had been rearrested, Krasulina added.

Critics say the arrests of political activists and journalists are part of President Lukashenko's "crackdown" on opponents ahead of the election, which has been dubbed the "toughest challenge" to his 26-year-long authoritarian rule.

Read more: Belarus elections: Lukashenko's authoritarian grip faces test

Tikhanovskaya, who has drawn large crowds to campaign rallies throughout the country after she was allowed to participate in place of her jailed husband, claims that Lukashenko is trying to rig the vote.

Multiple arrests

Authorities have also detained Vitali Shkliarov, a well-known political analyst who has advised several presidential candidates in Russia and the United States. His lawyer said Saturday that Shkliarov had been charged with helping organize mass unrest in Belarus and faces up to three years in prison if convicted.

Three Russian opposition activists were also detained on Saturday as they traveled to Belarus to observe Sunday's election. Andrei Pivovarov and two other members of Open Russia, an opposition group established by self-exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were reportedly taken off a bus in the western Pskov region, according to the group.

Freelance journalist Alexander Burakov, who reports from Belarus for DW's Russian-language service, was given a 10-day prison sentence on Friday after being arrested earlier in the week.

Two of Lukashenko's main election rivals are already in jail while another would-be candidate fled the country.

The least predictable election Belarus has seen in decades

Lukashenko on the edge?

Discontent against Lukashenko, the longest-serving European leader, has been growing in Belarus. The Eastern European country's economy is worsening and the government's dismissive response to the coronavirus pandemic has anger the public.

There have been reports of rifts among the ruling elite, with Lukashenko accusing Russia, Belarus' main ally and sponsor, of meddling in the elections. In the past weeks, his security service has detained more than 30 Russians who the authorities said were plotting violent protests with members of the opposition.

Read more: Belarus President Lukashenko slams Moscow 'lies' as row with Russia escalates

While ties between the two countries run deep, the rift has been widening for years over oil prices, trade disputes, political integration between Russia and Belarus, as well as Russian military presence in the smaller nation.

The president has also accused the US of plotting to overthrow him.

"Some people" who were detained have "US passports, (and) are married to Americans who work for the State Department," Lukashenko said in an apparent reference to political analyst Shkliarov.

Tikhanovskaya has drawn large crowds to campaign rallies throughout the country
Tikhanovskaya has drawn large crowds to campaign rallies throughout the countryImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Gapon

'Symbol of change'

In an interview with The Associated Press, presidential candidate Tsikhanovskaya described herself as a "symbol of change."

"It was brewing inside for more than 20 years," Tsikhanovskaya said. "We were afraid all that time and no one dared to say a word. Now people vote for a symbol of change."

Several human rights organizations have expressed concern about the possibility of a brutal crackdown on protests following this weekend's presidential election.

"We call on all participants in any possible confrontations to settle disputes through dialogue and negotiation," the organizations said in a joint statement on Saturday.

The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, along with the foreign ministers of several EU countries, called for free, fair elections in Belarus.

Read more: Opinion: Lukashenko is playing games to keep his grip on power

shs/rc  (Dpa, AFP, Reuters)