Protesters Demand Belarus Strongman Face Banned Challenger

Supporters of an opposition challenger to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko turned out to demand the authorities allow him to run in next month’s election.

At least 2,500 people formed long lines outside the central election commission in the capital Minsk on Wednesday with written challenges to its decision to reject former banker Viktor Babariko’s candidacy for the Aug. 9 contest.

“The authorities need us to feel that our voices don’t have any weight, instilling fear,” said Anton Mishustin, 27, who stood in line with his wife Elena to lodge a complaint. “Such a peaceful form of protest allows people to overcome that.”

Protesters Demand Belarus Strongman Face Banned Challenger

Babariko’s team had urged supporters to submit objections to the commission, a day after violent clashes between police and protesters who took to the streets in Minsk and other cities over the refusal to register Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, another Lukashenko critic. More than 300 people were detained at Tuesday’s protests, according to the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna.

Babariko, the former chief executive officer of a Minsk bank owned by Russia’s Gazprom PJSC and Gazprombank JSC, was detained last month after a state security service began a criminal probe into alleged fraud and money laundering. His campaign gathered 430,000 signatures in support of his candidacy, more than any potential challenger to Lukashenko, amid rising discontent over policies ranging from the coronavirus response to the economy.

Lukashenko is seeking a sixth successive presidential term in the country of 9.4 million bordering Russia and Poland. The authoritarian leader has drawn sanctions from Europe and the U.S. for his treatment of the opposition in previous elections, crushing public dissent since winning power in 1994.

Protesters Demand Belarus Strongman Face Banned Challenger

“We all need a million complaints,” Maria Kalesnikava, Babariko’s team coordinator, said in a video address on YouTube urging supporters to go to the election commission. “We have to show our opposition to these predatory and illegal actions of the authorities.”

Police later detained some people after urging the complainants to disperse when the election commission closed for the day.

Lukashenko hasn’t directly addressed the protests so far, though he has previously complained of a “foreign” plot to foment revolution. “We won’t surrender our country to anyone,” he told people on a visit to Vitebsk region on Wednesday.

The decision to reject opposition candidates “is a severe blow against basic democratic principles, freedom of speech and the rule of law” in Belarus, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday. “The government is concerned over the apparently arbitrary arrest of peacefully-demonstrating people.”

An opposition candidate who was permitted to register, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, criticized police in a video address for beating up their “mothers and sisters.” Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed political YouTube blogger, has said she is participating in the election on behalf of her husband and his supporters.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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