Tens of thousands of supporters of the main opposition candidate in the Belarusian presidential election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, took part in a major rally on Thursday, despite pressure from the authorities.
At least 63,000 people gathered on Thursday (July 30) in a park in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, in support of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, for the largest gathering of opponents in at least a decade in Belarus.
Earlier in the day, authorities arrested two imprisoned opposition leaders, Sergei Tikhanovsky, the husband of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Mikola Statkevich, for trying to organize “mass riots” before August 9 with the help of a private military company believed to be near the Kremlin, named Wagner.
This accusation is a new twist in an eventful election campaign, marked by violent repression against protesters and opponents. Despite this, the election promises to be thirsty for President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 2014 and is facing unusually strong mobilization from the opposition.
Russia is accused of wanting to destabilize Belarus
On Wednesday, police arrested 33 Russians who were presented as Wagner “fighting” to “destabilize” Belarus. These accusations provoked bitter exchanges with Moscow.
Historical allies, Russia and Belarus have maintained strained relations since the end of 2019, Alexander Lukashenko has accused Russia of wanting to reduce its country to a vassal state and of interfering in the August 9 vote, which Moscow denies.
Speaking to supporters, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, for her part, accused the authorities of “breaking” the life of her husband and “other Belarusian political prisoners” and added that the arrest of the Russian paramilitaries was “scary”.
“No one will believe that these fighters were sent to us for the election. That they wanted to make a revolution here. What revolution? We want freedom,” she added.
According to Andrei Ravkov, State Secretary for the Belarussian Security Council, the 33 men arrested on Wednesday belong to a group of 200 people: “We are looking for the others, they are like a needle in a haystack.”
Russia has denied any attempts to destabilize. “It is clear that this cannot be the case, Russia and Belarus are allies, the closest partners,” said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin.
In a statement, Russian diplomats said the men worked for a Belarusian company and were on their way to Istanbul. “Any attempt to present what happened as external interference in the affairs of the (Belarusian) Republic is, to say the least, confusing,” we read.
Wagner is regularly accused of deploying mercenaries abroad – Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic – interventions that Russia does not want to be officially associated with.
Belarussian authorities say the suspects would destabilize the country in the run-up to the presidential election, Lukashenko, 65, given that Russia, his main ally for 26 years, is now supporting its opponents.
Svetalana Tikhanovskaïa, unexpected candidate
After replacing her husband at short notice during the presidential election, Svetalana Tikhanovskaya has unexpectedly become a political phenomenon, whose gatherings draw crowds like never before in the country.
She teamed up with Maria Kolesnikova, the former campaign manager for another imprisoned opponent, and Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of a third regime representative who is now in exile on Russian territory.
The latter announced on Thursday the arrest of her sister and her summons by the police in an investigation aimed at her husband, “political pressure”, according to her.
Since coming to power in 1994, President Lukashenko has never seemed so controversial as during this election campaign, galvanized by the arrival of new faces.
If he has on several occasions accused the West of wanting to fire him earlier, it is the first time he has attacked Russia in this way and some believe the case is a staging orchestrated by the Belarusian authorities.
Lukashenko and Putin have seen each other several times in recent months, including twice in June, in a failed attempt to resolve their differences.