MINSK -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka claims to have thwarted an attempt to foment revolution in the Eastern European country, a day after his government ordered the arrest of a popular, would-be presidential candidate, prompting thousands to take to the streets to protest what they see as increased harassment of opposition leaders.
Speaking at a government meeting on June 19, Lukashenka said that forces “in the East and West” were trying to destabilize Belarus but that their “masks have been torn off” and the “puppets and puppet masters abroad” identified.
In the afternoon, dozens of people gathered in central Minsk for a final day of signature gathering for would-be candidates in the August 9 presidential election.
The participants were lining up along Independence Boulevard when police pushed them to a nearby square, amid reported disruptions of Internet connections in the area.
At one point, officers told people to leave the square. Several people were detained, including RFE/RL reporter Alyaksandra Dynko and her cameraman, Andrey Rabchyk.
The previous day, thousands of people took to Independence Boulevard in what was dubbed a picket of solidarity after Viktar Babaryka, who headed the Russian-owned Belgazprombank for 20 years, was detained on suspicion of financial crimes, as well as his son who heads his presidential election campaign.
Belarusian authorities on June 15 took control of the bank and arrested more than a dozen top executives on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.
Babaryka, 56, has said the actions taken against Belgazprombank were part of an intimidation campaign conducted on “political orders.”
On June 19, the European Union called on Belarus to immediately release Babaryka and his son from detention and to guarantee full respect of the rule of law.
"Any investigation must be impartial and without political pressure," EU foreign policy spokesperson Peter Stano said in a statement.
The crackdown on Babaryka and Belgazprombank – which is nearly 100 percent owned by Russian natural gas giant Gazprom and its affiliate Gazprombank -- comes as Lukashenka faces what experts say is one of the biggest challenges ever to his rule, which stretches back to 1994.
Belarus, with a population of some 9.5 million, has one of Europe’s highest infection rates for the coronavirus, which Lukashenka dismissed as a “mass psychosis” and ignored calls by the World Health Organization and others to institute any social-distancing measures.
The World Bank predicts the Belarusian economy will contract 4 percent this year as a result of the pandemic, while some informal, online polls put Lukashenka’s public support at just 3 percent.
Seeking A Sixth Term
In the election on August 9, Lukashenka will be seeking a sixth term in office. No election, either for president or parliament, during his rule has been deemed free and fair by Western governments and institutions.
Babaryka has risen in popularity as the vote nears, and his election campaign says it has collected nearly 435,000 signatures -- more than four times the required 100,000 minimum to get on the ballot -- to support his bid to get on the ballot by a June 19 deadline.
The Belarusian Central Election Commission cleared 15 would-be candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot, while rejecting others, including potential candidates like popular vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski and opposition politician Mikalay Statkevich, who challenged the authoritarian leader in 2010 and was imprisoned for protests that followed that disputed vote.
WATCH: Thousands Form Human Chain In Minsk Following Arrest Of Opposition Candidate
The Committee for State Control (KDK) said on June 18 that Babaryka was arrested for allegedly attempting to influence witness testimony and illegally withdrawing large amounts of cash from bank accounts, among other things.
KDK head Ivan Tertel said that almost 20 employees of Belgazprombank had been arrested, adding that many of the suspects "confessed" that they had illegally transferred hundreds of millions of dollars to Latvia via a scheme organized by Babaryka.
Babaryka's election campaign staff said lawyers for the two men were not allowed to be present during the questioning, and that Babaryka's home in Minsk was searched by law enforcement officers.
In recent weeks, opposition rallies and gatherings in support of would-be candidates have attracted thousands of people across Belarus as the authoritarian Lukashenka seeks a sixth term.
Several opposition activists, politicians, and bloggers were sentenced to up to 15 days in jail this week for taking part in what authorities called "unsanctioned rallies."
In his statement, Stano demanded that Belarus “refrain from any restrictions of the rights of potential candidates, avoid any detentions of peaceful protesters, and immediately release all arbitrarily detained activists.”
"No potential candidate should be prevented from fulfilling the registration procedure due to politically motivated restrictive measures," he added.