Updated at 14:54,16-10-2020

Belarus leader claims to have quashed foreign-backed revolt

Andrew Roth in Moscow, The Guardian

Belarus leader claims to have quashed foreign-backed revolt
Alexander Lukashenko gives a speech in Minsk on 9 May to mark the 75th anniversary of the allied victory over Nazi Germany. Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AP
Belarus’s autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, claims to have thwarted a revolution backed by “foreign puppet masters” after harassing and arresting his opponents ahead of the country’s presidential elections in August.

“We have managed to take steps to anticipate and thwart a major plan to destabilise Belarus (this is not a joke or a scare tactic) and bring a new Maidan [revolution] to the country,” said Lukashenko, referring to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, in remarks carried by the Belta state news agency.

“The masks have been ripped off the puppets we have here and the puppet masters, who are sitting beyond Belarus’ borders.”

He did not provide any evidence for claims of foreign interference, which he aimed at both Russia and the west.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for 24 years and plans to run for a sixth term as president in the poll on 9 August. The elections are usually carefully stage-managed and Lukashenko has employed violent crackdowns in the past to maintain control over the country.

This year had looked different, with three viable opposition candidates backed by dynamic grassroots campaigns. His opponents, including establishment officials, claim Lukashenko’s support has collapsed amid a struggling economy, the government’s poor coronavirus response, and exhaustion with a regime that has been in power for a quarter of a century.

One main rival, Viktor Babariko, was arrested on Thursday in a sudden investigation into his former bank, the local arm of Russia’s Gazprombank. Belarusian officials said they had made 15 arrests in a money-laundering and tax evasion case that “created a real threat to the interests of national security of our country”. Babariko had previously told the Guardian he was a victim of political pressure. His campaign called it “a direct violation of human rights”.

The popular YouTube vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who had likened Lukashenko to a cockroach at popular rallies, was jailed last week on charges of public disorder and could face three years in prison. His wife, Svetlana, is running for president in his place, but this week said she had received threats against herself and her children.

On Thursday evening, hundreds of Belarusians came out on to the streets for a rare protest, standing in a physically distanced line estimated at more than 2.5 miles long to voice their displeasure with the government. Cars passing by honked their horns in support.

On Friday, the EU called on Belarus to release Babariko and “strongly urges the Belarusian authorities to ensure a meaningful and competitive political contest”.