Belarus Detains 33 Russia Militants in Alleged Election Plot

Belarus accused a Kremlin-linked military contractor of sending 200 fighters to destabilize the country ahead of Aug. 9 presidential elections in which longtime ruler Alexander Lukashenko is facing an unprecedented challenge.

Lukashenko summoned an emergency meeting of his Security Council on Wednesday over the detention of 32 Russians at a sanatorium near the capital Minsk who were alleged by law enforcement to belong to the private Wagner group of mercenaries, his press service said on its website. Another Russian was held in the south of Belarus, it said.

“If they’re guilty, we should get out of this situation with dignity,” Lukashenko said of the alleged Russian involvement. “If they’re not guilty - good, we don’t have any goal of smearing the country that’s close to us.”

Belarus Detains 33 Russia Militants in Alleged Election Plot

The Russians wore military-style dress and behaved in an “untypical” manner for tourists, including by refusing to drink alcohol, Belarus’s state-run Belta news service reported earlier. It published a list of names and birth dates of those detained.

Wagner is controlled by Yegveny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has deployed his private army to hot spots around the world including Africa, the Middle East and Latin America in support of Kremlin policy.

Lukashenko, an ex-collective farm director who has ruled his former Soviet nation of 9.4 million with an iron fist since 1994, has warned of foreign interference ahead of the vote. Relations between Belarus and Russia have deteriorated in recent years over Minsk’s refusal to accept closer integration with its much larger neighbor despite continuing economic dependence on Moscow.

Lukashenko is facing a challenge from three opposition groups that have united behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who registered as a candidate after her husband, a political YouTube blogger who expected to run in the contest, was detained. She’s gained backing from the team of former banker Viktor Babariko, whose candidacy was rejected by officials this month after he was detained by security services in June.

Prigozhin, who’s known as “Putin’s chef” because of his Kremlin catering contracts, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment sent via his Concord company.

Russian nationalist author Zakhar Prilepin, who took part in fighting alongside rebels in eastern Ukraine, said some of those detained in Belarus were “former fighters from our battalion,” in a statement on his Telegram channel. He suggested they were heading to another country via Belarus.

Lukashenko has built his presidential campaign on demonstrating that Belarus faces an external threat, and the capture of the Russian group fits that narrative, Minsk-based military analyst Yahor Lebiadok said by phone. The mercenaries may have used Belarus as a transit hub for deployment elsewhere, and “the idea of them being sent here in order to destabilize the country is rather questionable, even if not completely impossible,” he said.

“Lukashenko may use the ‘interference’ as a pretext to cancel the elections entirely, judging that this is the best means to avoid even the theoretical possibility of defeat,” Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at U.K-based Verisk Maplecroft, said in an email. “While it is possible that the troops are from a clandestine Russian destabilization effort, it is much more likely that their arrest was part of a staged propaganda operation.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Russia’s ambassador to Belarus said the embassy hadn’t received any information about the arrests, the state-run Tass news service reported.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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