Paval Belavus was expecting a special delivery on June 12.
His Minsk shop, Symbal, sells hip-yet-trendy Belarusian folk-themed merchandise as well as small red-and-white flags of the country's short-lived independent state -- the type of items that the regime of long-ruling President Alyaksandr Lukashenka does not embrace, as they are associated with the country's opposition.
Belavus was hoping to stock the shelves with another item he was sure would be a hit with the public, but probably not the authoritarian leader.
He had printed up exactly 419 black T-shirts with "Psicho3%" printed in red and white splashed across them.
Psicho3%, or Psycho3% in English, is a hit meme circulating on social media and elsewhere referencing Lukashenka's dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic as a "psychosis" and his apparent low public support according to informal polls. Another meme, Sasha3%, has circulated as well.
The T-shirts never made it to the shop. Belarusian traffic police stopped the courier van delivering them. Since then, Belavus has faced such pressure from the authorities that he recently announced he will close Symbal for good on June 29 and do business only online.
Supporters and others have lined up at the store in Minsk in recent days to grab items before they're gone and to voice their support for Belavus. For that, some have been chased down by OMON riot police, with many detained for various reasons, including blocking traffic.
The meme is an embarrassment to Lukashenka, and highlights the unexpected wrench in the works as the 65-year-old leader seeks a sixth consecutive term as president in the August 9 election.
Brooking No Opposition
In power since 1994, Lukashenka is facing growing public unrest and skepticism largely due to his government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The country has one of Europe's highest per capita infection rates, and Lukashenka has ignored calls to institute social-distancing measures and other restrictions, instead saying that vodka, a ride on a tractor, or a visit to the sauna would fend off the coronavirus, earning him ridicule abroad and disbelief at home.
Lukashenka has dismissed the government, promised to raise pensions, and increased his face-to-face encounters with Belarusians in a bid to shore up support.
Few experts doubt that Lukashenka will win in August, given his control over the electoral process. No election under his rule has ever been deemed fair or free by Western governments or observers. And this one is unlikely to be different. But this time, Lukashenka is facing a challenge he has never seen before.
He has jailed three would-be challengers. One, Viktar Babaryka, a former banker, said his campaign had collected more than 435,000 signatures, unheard of for an opposition presidential candidate in Belarus.
Belarusian authorities on June 15 took control of a commercial bank that was led for 20 years by Babaryka, Belgazprombank, which is majority-owned by Russian gas giant Gazprom and its affiliate, Gazprombank.
Hundreds of activists, bloggers, and other opponents of the regime have been rounded up, including other potential candidates like Mikalay Statkevich, who ran against Lukashenka in 2010 and was imprisoned afterward for protests that followed that disputed vote. He had another 15 days tacked on after his first 15-day jail term expired on June 15 on charges of taking part in "unauthorized events."
Syarhey Tsikhanouski, a popular vlogger, was also barred from running and is facing a possible three-year prison term for organizing pro-democracy rallies. Tsikhanouski called on Belarusians to pick up their bedtime slippers and squash the "cockroach," his mocking moniker for Lukashenka. While Tsikhanouski was barred from running, his wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was cleared to gather signatures to seek a candidacy.
To get on the ballot, even Lukashenka needed to collect the required 100,000 signatures. His team announced they cleared that minimum and then some, claiming some 2 million Belarusians signed his ballot petition. While other would-be candidates organized signature-collection rallies, many of which the police broke up, Lukashenka's team, in many cases, went door to door and to the factory floor, according to the head on the leader's so-called initiative group, Mikhail Orda.
'Don't Insult Me!'
Few experts doubt those numbers translate into true support for Lukashenka. What the public thinks of the authoritarian leader and the job he's doing is largely a mystery. Since 2016, there's been no official polling done. In that year, the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies published polling data showing support for Lukashenka at 29.5 percent. After that, the institute was forced to shut its door in Belarus.
The meme Sasha3% began to appear after independent Belarusian media, including leading online news sites Tut.by and Onliner.by, published informal polls that weren't flattering for Lukashenka's presidential chances. The surveys routinely showed him fourth after Babaryka, Valer Tsapkala, another businessman, and Tsikhanouskaya, with Lukashenka shown polling a paltry 3 percent. To avoid further embarrassment, Belarusian authorities simply banned media from conducting such surveys.
On June 23, at a campaign stop in Brest, where he met with opponents of a local battery factory, Lukashenka addressed the meme and other insults being hurled his way.
"Was it you who wrote 'Sasha 3%' on T-shirts? Do you really believe that the serving president has just 3 percent support? Even in this alternative crowd, I've got more than 3 percent," Lukashenka told the gathering. "Stop harassing and insulting us, [calling me] 'a mustached cockroach' etc.... I am still the president of this country. In no country in the world are you allowed to insult people."
"We must not insult one another. 'Mustached cockroach' or whatever else. I am the current president. No one has the right to insult people," Lukashenka added.
Has The Tide Turned?
Belavus is learning that lesson the hard way. He said that after the T-shirts were confiscated, authorities sent in tax officials to check the company paperwork, the store's electricity was cut, and complaints suddenly surfaced that neighbors complained of a foul smell coming from the shop.
On June 23, Belavus announced on Facebook he was going out of business and urged people to come to the shop for the fire-sale.
"You are welcome to buy something from us before the end of the week, before the store's goods are confiscated. There are many more flags, T-shirts, mugs, handbags and other products," Belavus wrote.
That evening, dozens turned up at the shop, some to buy, some just to express support for Belavus. The event was even livestreamed.
The riot police later turned up at the scene in a police wagon, dispersing the crowd and making arrests. According to Vyasna, a human rights NGO, at least 20 people were detained, including members of the country's independent media.
The fact more and more everyday Belarusians are willing to take to the streets despite such repression is unprecedented, Belarusian analyst Valer Karbalevich told Current Time television.
"Belarus has been living in an atmosphere of violence for 26 years, since Lukashenka came to power. The only difference now is that the Belarusian government, the political regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has lost public confidence," Karbalevich explained. "Lukashenka's popularity has dropped, and judging by the mood in Belarusian society, most Belarusians really would like to see a change of power."