Political grip shaky, Belarus leader blames longtime ally: Russia

By Andrew Higgins

The longtime authoritarian leader of Belarus, under threat like never be- fore 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 Rus- sian 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 Aug. 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 unem- ployment seen across much of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, 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 ri- valry between East and West to keep him- self in power. Speaking on Friday during a meeting with economic officials in Minsk, Belarus’ capital, Lukashenko claimed that he had thwarted a plot to foment revolu- tion 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 the “masks have been ripped away not only from the pup- pets 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, Babariko headed Belgazprombank, a Belarus bank mostly owned by state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom. He and his son, who ran his father’s election campaign, were ar- rested Thursday, on suspicion of financial wrongdoing.

Despite the president’s long record of disparaging those who speak Belarusian instead of Russian and jailing Belarus na- tionalists, he said he would not allow any- one 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 secu- rity forces, now perhaps Lukashenko’s last unwavering base of support.

Babariko’s long affiliation with Gaz- prom, which has often been used by the Kremlin as a geopolitical tool, made him an easy target.

Another would-be candidate, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular video blogger and former businessman, has also been arrest- ed 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 Lukashenko has always sought to discredit his political rivals by portraying them as stooges ma- nipulated 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, Shraibman said, have started telling their European counterparts not to view the arrest of Lukashenko’s political opponents as an attack on the democratic process, but as a necessary response to Russian in- terference.

The argument has had few takers. The European Union protested Babariko’s arrest and called for his imme- diate release. The United States has not commented on the former banker, but the U.S. Embassy in Minsk posted a statement on Twitter urging the Belarusian govern- ment “to uphold its international commit- ments to respect fundamental freedoms,” and release the detained protesters.

Belarus has not had an election con- sidered free and fair by independent ob- servers since 1994. Lukashenko has won five presidential elections in a row, and they have often been accompanied by tough crackdowns.

Lukashenko’s latest tilt away from Moscow became particularly pronounced after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vis- ited Minsk in February. After that visit, the first 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 Lu- kashenko’s turn from Russia. In the past, Belarus generated at least 10% of its gross domestic product — some estimates say 20% — 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, Shraibman said, is also locked into long-term natural gas con- tracts with Gazprom that require it to pay far more than the current market rate.

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

Lukashenko now seems convinced that he can blunt Western criticism of his preelection crackdown by presenting it as a necessary response to Russian meddling. The announcement of Babariko’s presidential bid shocked Lukashenko, who had previously considered him a reliable member of the business elite. Belarus’ for- mer ambassador in Washington, Valery Tsepkalo, has also announced plans to run against Lukashenko.

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

Shortly before his arrest, Babariko gave an interview to Ekho Moskvy, a lib- eral-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 Mos- cow.

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

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

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