The presidential elections in Belarus began on Tuesday. President Aleksandr Lukashenko, “the last dictator of Europe”, represents his largest electoral challenges in years. He accuses the opposition of colluding with Russia.
Last week, a group of 33 Russian mercenaries were detained in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. The Belarusian government announced that it suspected the men of a plot to ‘terrorist acts’ to destabilize the country in the run-up to the election.
Russia claims that the men are not mercenaries but employees of a private company. Minsk would only have been a stopover on their journey to “one of the States in the Latin American region”, according to a Russian diplomat quoted by the Russian state agency RIA.
The Belarusian authorities say that the mercenaries made “contradictory statements” about their plan. Venezuela, Turkey, Cuba and Syria were mentioned as destinations.
International analysts value Moscow’s interpretation more than Minsk’s.
The relationship between Belarus and Russia is traditionally very close, but in recent years the increase has become cooler. President Lukashenko is trying to make his country less dependable of Russia, to make Moscow’s peace, which Belarus wants to leave a lawyer to the Russian Federal State.
The diplomatic rallying around the Russian mercenaries comes at an opportune time for Belarusian President Lukashenko. The position of the authoritarian leader, also known as ‘the last dictator of Europe’, seems to be under threat for the first time in years.
The ballot boxes opened on Tuesday for five days of early voting, after which the final part of the election will take place on Sunday.
Many Belarusians are dissatisfied with the poor economy, the lack of civil liberties and Lukashenko’s approach to the coronacrisis. The president claims that a regular stay in the sauna and vodka consumption are sufficient to prevent the virus and refused to take strict measures.
In recent months, mass demonstrations against the regime have taken place in Belarus.
The Belarusian State reacted with brutal repression: dozens of activists and journalists were arrested and the two main opposition candidates were excluded from the elections by the Electoral Council in mid-July. One of them, Viktor Babaryko, is suspected of fraud, according to the Belarusian authorities-an accusation described by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, as ‘politically motivated’.