Political Grip Shaky, Belarus Leader Blames Longtime Ally: Russia

Political Grip Shaky, Belarus Leader Blames Longtime Ally: Russia

Political Grip Shaky, Belarus Leader Blames Longtime Ally: Russia

Political Grip Shaky, Belarus Leader Blames Longtime Ally: Russia

MOSCOW — The longtime authoritarian leader of Belarus, under threat like never before ahead of what was supposed to be just another rigged election, is taking a surprising new tack that he hopes will win him sympathy in the West: blaming Russian election meddling.

In power for 26 years, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, sometimes called Europe’s last dictator, has become so unsettled by a surge of discontent and support for prospective rivals in the August 9 election that he has turned his propaganda machine on Moscow, long his closest ally and principal benefactor.

Once praised by a large segment of the population for keeping Belarus stable and avoiding the turmoil and mass unemployment seen across much of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Mr. Lukashenko has recently faced a groundswell of criticism at home, particularly over his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, as relations with Moscow have soured and those with Washington have improved.

For years he has manipulated the rivalry between East and West to keep himself in power. Speaking on Friday during a meeting with economic officials in Minsk, Belarus’s capital, Mr. Lukashenko claimed that he had thwarted a plot to foment revolution with the arrest a day earlier of Viktor Babariko, a would-be election rival and the former head of a Russian-owned bank.

While not pointing a finger directly at the Kremlin, he said that the “masks have been ripped away not only from the puppets we have here but also the puppeteers who sit outside Belarus.”

Nobody was in any doubt that he was talking about Russia.

For two decades, Mr. Babariko headed Belgazprombank, a Belarus bank mostly owned by the state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom. He and his son, who ran his father’s election campaign, were arrested on Thursday, on suspicion of financial wrongdoing.

Despite the president’s long record of disparaging those who speak Belarusian instead of Russian and jailing Belarus nationalists, he said he would not allow anyone to threaten the country’s sovereignty. “There is no greater value than a sovereign and independent Belarus,” he declared.

Scores of demonstrators who took to the streets in Minsk and other cities to protest the arrests were detained by security forces, now perhaps the last unwavering base of support for Mr. Lukashenko.

Another would-be candidate, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular video blogger and former businessman, has also been arrested and accused of having ties to Russia, notably through a Kremlin-linked oligarch. Investigators claim to have found nearly $1 million stashed behind a sofa at his home and have suggested the money was from Russia.

Artyom Shraibman, the founder of Sense-Analytics, a Minsk consulting firm and research group, said that Mr. Lukashenko has always sought to discredit his political rivals by portraying them as stooges manipulated by foreign powers. But he used to call them agents of Western plots.

“Times have changed,” he said, “So they are now trying to play on anti-Russian sentiment in the West.”

Belarus diplomats, Mr. Shraibman said, have started telling their European counterparts not to view the arrest of Mr. Lukashenko’s political opponents as an attack on the democratic process, but as a necessary response to Russian interference.

The argument has had few takers.

The European Union protested Mr. Babariko’s arrest and called for his immediate release. The United States has not commented on the former banker, but the American embassy in Minsk posted a statement on Twitter urging the Belarusian government “to uphold its international commitments to respect fundamental freedoms,” and release the detained protesters.

Belarus has not had an election considered free and fair by independent observers since 1994. Mr. Lukashenko has won five presidential elections in a row, and they have often been accompanied by tough crackdowns.

In the past, however, the crackdowns always followed the voting, when those who supported the defeated opposition candidates would take to the streets to protest rigged voting and other abuses. This time, with the election approaching, Mr. Lukashenko has started the crackdown early, perhaps a sign that he is worried about the outcome.

Independent polling of public opinion is tightly restricted in Belarus, and surveys carried out by pollsters affiliated with the government are usually kept secret.

But a leaked poll conducted by sociologists at the Belarus Academy of Sciences in April showed that only about a third of the population trusts Mr. Lukashenko, a dismal rating for a leader who controls all television and other traditional media outlets.

Mr. Lukashenko’s latest tilt away from Moscow became particularly pronounced after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February. After that visit, the first visit by a secretary of state since the early 1990s, Washington appointed its first ambassador to Belarus in more than a decade, a sign that it wants to normalize relations.

The collapse in oil prices triggered by the pandemic has also influenced Mr. Lukashenko’s turn from Russia. In the past, Belarus generated at least 10 percent of its gross domestic product — some estimates say 20 percent — by buying cut-price crude oil from Russia, processing it and then selling it to Europe. But that game ended this year when Russia started demanding market rates for its crude and prices for refined products slumped.

Belarus, Mr. Shraibman said, is also locked into long-term natural gas contracts with Gazprom that require it to pay far more than the current market rate.

Furious with Russia over energy prices and emboldened by thawing relations with Washington, Mr. Lukashenko has increasingly resisted pressure from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to fuse Belarus and Russia into a so-called “union state,” a project that was conceived in the 1990s but then stalled.

Mr. Lukashenko now seems convinced that he can blunt western criticism of his pre-election crackdown by presenting it as a necessary response to Russian meddling.

Ivan Tertel, a close ally of Mr. Lukashenko and the head of an anti-corruption agency leading the charge against Mr. Babariko, warned Moscow this week that the investigation into the former banker would expose the Russian “puppeteers” behind his campaign.

“These people are, we know, big Gazprom chiefs and perhaps even higher,” he said, hinting at possible Kremlin involvement.

Maryna Rakhlei, a Belarusian expert on the region at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said “there is no evidence” to support accusations of meddling by Gazprom or the Russian state, and that Mr. Lukashenko’s troubles were largely the result of widespread fatigue among voters over his long time in office and his poor response to the coronavirus.

Despite only patchy testing for the virus, Belarus has reported over 58,000 cases, compared with about 32,000 in neighboring Poland, which has four times its population.

“The situation threatens to spin out of control for Lukashenko,” Ms. Rakhlei said. “He is not really able to silence the protests as they are largely on social media and spread like forest fire.”

Younger people in Belarus have long been critical of Mr. Lukashenko, who appeals largely to older citizens, particularly those who live in the countryside and share nostalgic views of the Soviet Union. But the presidential campaign highlights how discontent has reached far beyond young voters and into the Belarus establishment.

The announcement of Mr. Babariko’s presidential bid shocked Mr. Lukashenko, who had previously considered him a reliable member of the business elite. Belarus’ former ambassador in Washington, Valery Tsepkalo, has also announced plans to run against Mr. Lukashenko.

Before his arrest on Thursday, Mr. Babariko had collected 425,000 signatures in support of his candidacy, a huge number in a country with fewer than 10 million people.

Shortly before his arrest, Mr. Babariko gave an interview to Ekho Moskvy, a liberal-leaning Russian radio station that is majority owned by Gazprom, and scoffed at the accusation that he was a stooge for Russian interests and was backed by Moscow.

He noted that he had in the past come under criticism in Russia for “using Gazprom’s money to develop the Belarus national movement,” a reference to his decision to fund the translation of the writings of Svetlana Alexievich from Russian into Belarusian. Ms Alexievich, a Belarusian who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been highly critical of Russia under Mr. Putin.

“Russians have always said that I am a Belarus nationalist while Belarusians said that I was pro-Russian, because I worked for Gazprom,” Mr. Babariko said. “The West does not know what to think.”

Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko in Moscow.

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