MINSK -- President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has accused Russia and Poland of "meddling" in the country's upcoming presidential election as he continues to crack down on potential challengers and the independent media.
In a June 25 Telegram post, Lukashenka, facing the strongest-ever challenge to his leadership as he seeks a sixth term, accused activists of posting "creepy fake" stories on the Internet seeking to discredit him and his family before the elections, scheduled for August 9.
"It is clear that there are puppet masters behind them. They are on both sides of us; they reside in Poland and they throw [dirt] from Russia as well...They use the most modern fake technologies. The meddling into our election, our internal affairs is under way," Lukashenka stated.
The Kremlin rejected Lukashenka's claims while referring to Belarus an ally.
The 65-year-old Lukashenka has come under fire after a potential major challenger, Viktar Babaryka, was arrested on corruption charges on June 18. At the same time, the government has tried to tighten its grip on the media, detaining at least 14 journalists, three of whom were convicted for their coverage of protests against Lukashenka last week.
The latest incident occurred on June 25 when noted online reporter Ihar Losik was detained after police searched his home in Minsk.
'Blogging Is Not A Crime'
Losik, who is also an RFE/RL consultant on new media technologies, is an administrator for the Telegram channel ''Belarus Of Encephalon." The channel, which has more than 167,000 subscribers, has actively covered the protests against Lukashenka in recent weeks.
"We deplore the detention of independent blogger, Belarus Service consultant, and former RFE/RL Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow Ihar Losik, and the raid on his apartment earlier today by no fewer than nine state agents," acting RFE/RL President Daisy Sindelar said in a statement.
"Blogging is not a crime. We demand that he be released immediately, that any confiscated materials and equipment be returned to him immediately, and that Belarus officials stop persecuting the people who are doing the essential work of keeping the public informed about developments related to the country’s forthcoming presidential elections," she added.
Human rights organizations and the U.S. State Department have voiced their concerns over the situation, which has been punctuated by dozens of trials, including around 50 in the capital, Minsk, involving participants of the so-called "chains of solidarity" protests. Most were charged with participating in an “unauthorized event” or “disobeying the police.”
Some of those who faced trials were journalists covering protests on June 19-20 in support of potential independent and opposition presidential candidates.
Lukashenka's critics have said his government has shown little tolerance for dissent and independent media, in general.
Lukashenka, who has ruled the country of 9.5 million people since 1994, is currently serving his fifth presidential term, and announced that he will run for office again. Belarus abolished presidential term limits in 2004.
The country has been the target of U.S. and EU sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections, but Belarus and the West have recently sought to mend ties to reduce Russia’s influence in the country.