Thousands Protest in Belarus, Europe’s Last Leftist Dictatorship, over Opposition Ban

Opposition supporters rally in Minsk on July 14, 2020, after the country's central electoral commission refused to register the main rivals to President Alexander Lukashenko as candidates for the country's presidential election in August. (Photo by Sergei GAPON / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images)
SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of people protested across Belarus on Tuesday after the government barred the country’s main opposition candidate from running in next month’s presidential election.

Over 140 people were detained after protesters scuffled with police in the capital, Minsk, and other cities, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported on Tuesday.

On July 14, the Belarusian Central Election Commission (CEC) announced that Viktar Babaryka, the leading opponent of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was omitted from the official list of candidates for the country’s upcoming presidential election on August 9. Lukashenka has been president of Belarus since 1994. Critics describe his rule as authoritarian, and RFE/RL noted that Tuesday’s announcement comes amid “mounting public opposition to his rule.”

Lukashenka is the only president in Belarus’s history, controlling the office since it was created after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1994.

In Minsk, thousands of people protested Babaryka’s elimination on Tuesday. Protesters organized “demonstrations at various locations, walking peacefully, and clapping as passing drivers honked their horns in support,” RFE/RL’s Belarus Service reported. “Similar protests were held in regional cities, including Brest and Gomel.”

Not all protests remained peaceful. According to the report, video footage circulated on social media Tuesday showing protesters scuffling with “riot police and plainclothes police officers.” Across Belarus, police detained at least 140 of the violent protesters.

“The protests over the disqualification of candidates on July 14 were only the latest in weeks of political unrest that has resulted in dozens of demonstrations and scores of arrests,” RFE/RL reported.

According to the report, political analysts believed Babaryka posed a legitimate threat to Lukashenka at the polls. Babaryka’s election team said it had “collected nearly 435,000 signatures to support his candidacy, a number [it] said was unprecedented for an independent candidate in Belarus and more than four times the required 100,000 needed to get on the ballot.”

“Babaryka was not registered [to compete in next month’s election] because inconsistencies were … found in his income and property declaration and because a foreign organization had taken part in his election campaign,” CEC chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna alleged on Tuesday without elaborating, RFE/RL noted.

Belarusian security forces arrested Babaryka and his son on June 18 after “police questioned them on allegations of tax evasion and money-laundering in connection with an investigation at the Russian-owned Belgazprombank, where the elder Babaryka worked for 20 years.” The opposition leader currently remains in jail, according to the report. Prior to the arrests on June 15, Belarusian authorities seized control of the Russian bank and “arrested more than a dozen top executives on charges of tax evasion and money-laundering.”

Following Babaryka’s arrest, Lukashenka said on June 19, “The authorities have taken preemptive steps and derailed a comprehensive plan to destabilize Belarus. We unmasked not only puppets here, but also some puppet masters outside Belarus.”

This statement follows Lukashenka’s “past rants about Moscow’s alleged plans to subdue its ally and neighbor [Belarus],” the Associated Press reports.

Critics have blasted Lukashenka’s handling of the country’s coronavirus outbreak. At press time on Tuesday, Belarus recorded 65,443 infections and 480 deaths from the Chinese coronavirus. “Lukashenka ignored calls to institute any lockdown measures, dismissing the virus as nothing more than a ‘psychosis.’ Hundreds of people, including activists and bloggers have been arrested as the government has cracked down hard on rallies and demonstrations,” RFE/RL reports.

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