President Alexander Lukashenko warns of Russian attempts to unseat him and sow discord after pushing out most of his political rivals ahead of decisive elections.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a candidate for the presidential elections (foreground) greets people during a meeting in Brest, 326 km southwest of Minsk, Belarus on August 2, 2020.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a candidate for the presidential elections (foreground) greets people during a meeting in Brest, 326 km southwest of Minsk, Belarus on August 2, 2020. (Sergei Grits / AP)

Early voting has started in Belarus ahead of a presidential election where strongman Alexander Lukashenko is seeking a sixth term after barring his main rivals from running.

The 65-year-old has ruled over the ex-Soviet country wedged between Russia and Europe with an iron grip for 26 years, cracking down on the country's emboldened opposition in the lead-up to Sunday's election.

The central elections commission on Tuesday said that the country's almost seven million eligible voters could cast ballots at 5,767 polling stations set up in public spaces, including medical facilities and army barracks and at 44 polling stations abroad.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, has accused European countries and Russia of meddling in the upcoming elections and last week arrested 33 Russian "militants" that the security services said were plotting mass riots with the opposition.

In a fiery speech to the nation on Tuesday, Lukashenko called Moscow's denial of sending Russian mercenaries "a lie". He said the detained men had confessed to everything. They had been given orders to enter Belarus and await further instructions, he said.

Russia has claimed the security contractors were in Belarus en route for sightseeing in Istanbul.

There was no immediate reaction from Moscow, which in the past dismisses Lukashenko's criticism of it as emotional.

READ MORE: Belarus accuses Russia's Wagner, Lukashenko critics of plotting unrest

READ MORE: Thousands attend Belarus opposition rally ahead of presidential election

Display of frustration

Lukashenko has tried to cast himself as a guarantor of stability in a chaotic world and pledged to protect his country from rivals he portrayed as childish wreckers being controlled by "puppet masters" abroad.

Independent observers claim the authorities have put pressure on public-sector employees to vote for Lukashenko-friendly candidates during the early voting period and carry out widespread falsifications before the main election day.

His leading rival, 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is running in place of her jailed husband and has drawn massive crowds at rallies across the country in an unprecedented display of frustration with Lukashenko's rule.

Tikhanovskaya has called on her supporters to vote on Sunday, the last day of polling, to avoid manipulation before the count and to wear a white bracelet so independent monitors can easily identify them.

READ MORE: Belarus authorities accused of misogyny ahead of election

Pensions and promises

Lukashenko promised on Tuesday that salaries would be doubled in the next five years and pensions protected from inflation.

He rejected calls from opponents to revert to an earlier version of the constitution that would limit anyone to serving a maximum of two terms.

"Returning to the 1994 constitution would be a gift to criminals. We won't return to the wild 1990s," he said.

In a recently published election manifesto, Lukashenko vowed to bolster Belarus's ties with other countries.

Since he took power, "we have been building Belarus, our common home with windows facing both the East and the West", he said.

Free and fair?

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which carries out international election and war monitoring, has not recognised any elections in Belarus as free and fair since 1995.

This year, the OSCE said it will not send observers to the vote after Belarus failed to issue an invitation in time. The organisation also raised concerns over intimidation and arrests of the opposition.

The Belarus election commission has said that no more than three observers can be present at each polling station during early voting "due to the epidemic situation" and only five will be permitted to oversee ballot boxes on Sunday.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies