In the Belarusian capital of Minsk, an atmosphere rife with anxiety and hope has taken hold of the capital city with elections planned for this week. Aptly named ‘Europe’s last dictator,’ Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the country with an iron fist for the last 26 years.
Naturally, Lukashenko has hopes for a sixth term as President of Belarus. It will not be an easy victory for Lukashenko however, who has received increasing pressure from opposition groups, Western condemnation for human rights abuses, and deteriorating relations with Russia, its immediate neighbor to the east.
On top of heightened opposition, 33 alleged Russian mercenaries were arrested in Minsk for attempting to destabilize the country according to the Belarusian regime. Russia has requested that Lukashenko release the mercenaries as an ‘ally’ of the Russian government.
Prior to the capture of the Russian mercenaries, tensions had already begun to escalate between the two countries with Lukashenko pushing back against the Kremlin’s plan to integrate the two countries’ economies.
There is concern that Lukashenko will use the pretense of Russian mercenaries infiltrating the country to tamp down on public protest ahead of the election as well as after the election since the results will most likely be contested. The dictator has already hinted at this with a series of visits to anti-riot troops and military bases suggesting they “must not allow” protests.
Lukashenko’s thinly veiled threats to opposition leaders have been largely ineffective as large swathes of Belarussians have taken to the streets to protest the current regime.
In Minsk, opposition rallies drew massive crowds not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union over 33 years ago. On July 19, a rally in Minsk attracted roughly 10,000 individuals. That number would more than quintuple to 63,000 people participating in rallies on July 30.
Leading the opposition is Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, a stand-in for her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTube blogger currently imprisoned by the Lukashenko government. In front of a large crowd, Tikhanouskaya exclaimed “You think that I’m not afraid? I’m afraid every day … But I get up, summon my will, get over my fear and move forward.”
Belarusian investigators claim Tikhanouskaya’s imprisoned husband has direct ties to the mercenaries, which points to an obvious attempt by the regime to tie Tikhanouskaya to Moscow, an allegation she has flatly denied.
Multiple reasons have been cited for Lukashenko’s fall in popularity. For one, Lukashenko has had a tepid response towards COVID-19 and has subsequently contracted the virus as a result. Furthermore, many Belarussians feel that Lukashenko’s reign has begun to wane, signaling the need for fresh leadership.
There is a lack of reliable polling data to predict an outcome for the upcoming election since the Lukashenko regime tightly controls all polling. In a recent poll released by a state-controlled TV station, Lukashenko is victorious with 72.3% of the vote. A single opposition-leaning poll suggests the elections will go to a second round.
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