Discontent over a worsening economy and the government's dismissive response to the coronavirus pandemic has helped fuel the country's huge opposition rallies.

A woman walks along a street and rises her hand with a white ribbon, a symbol of Belarus' opposition movement, during a flash mob on the eve of the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus on August 8, 2020
A woman walks along a street and rises her hand with a white ribbon, a symbol of Belarus' opposition movement, during a flash mob on the eve of the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus on August 8, 2020 (Reuters)

After 26 years in office, the authoritarian leader of Belarus has faced the toughest challenge yet as he runs for a sixth term.

Discontent over a worsening economy and the government's dismissive response to the coronavirus pandemic has helped fuel the country's largest opposition rallies since Alexander Lukashenko became it's first and only elected president following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Rumblings among the ruling elite and a bitter rift with Russia, Belarus's main sponsor and ally, compound the reelection challenge facing the 65-year-old former state farm director on Sunday.

Lukashenko, who once acquired the nickname “Europe's last dictator” in the West for his relentless crackdowns on dissent, has made it clear he won't hesitate to again, if necessary, use force to quash any attempt by his opponents to protest the results of the presidential election.

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

Political rivals barred

Election officials barred the president's two main prospective rivals from what is now a five-person race. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher and the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, has managed to draw strong support, with tens of thousands flocking to her campaign rallies.

Tsikhanouskaya has described herself as a “symbol of change”.

“It was brewing inside for more than 20 years," Tsikhanouskaya said. "We were afraid all that time and no one dared to say a word. Now people vote for a symbol of change.”

She's also said that authorities are "brazenly" rigging the vote and that Belarus is "waking up".

Tsikhanouskaya has crisscrossed the country, tapping public frustration with Lukashenko's swaggering response to the pandemic and the country's stagnating economy.

Opposition allies detained

A spokeswoman for presidential hopeful Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said that campaign manager Maria Moroz had been detained and was expected to be held until Monday.

It was not immediately clear on what grounds she had been held, said spokeswoman Anna Krasulina.

"She probably won't be released before Monday," Krasulina said.

Moroz was also detained by the interior ministry on Thursday after visiting the Lithuanian embassy in Minsk. She was later released.

Also Saturday evening, police detained but then released a top ally of Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova.

Police claimed she had been mistaken for another person, Krasulina said.

READ MORE: EU nations call for 'independent surveillance' during Belarus election

Covid-19 dismissal

The president has dismissed the coronavirus as “psychosis” and refused to introduce any restrictions to stem the outbreak, suggesting that Belarusians protect themselves against the disease with a daily shot of vodka, visits to the sauna and hard work in the fields.

“They were telling us that the virus doesn't exist and dismissed it as "psychosis" while tens of thousands of Belarusians have gotten sick," said Diana Golubovich, 54, a lawyer who attended Tsikhanouskaya's rally in Brest, a city on the border with Poland. “Suddenly everyone realised that the social-oriented state that Lukashenko was boasting about doesn't exist.”

Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, has reported more than 68,500 confirmed virus cases and 580 deaths from the pandemic. Critics have accused the authorities of manipulating the figures to downplay the death toll.

Lukashenko announced last month that he had been infected with the virus but had no Covid-19 symptoms and recovered quickly, allegedly thanks to doing sports. He defended his handling of the outbreak, saying that a lockdown would have doomed the nation's weakened economy.

READ MORE: Belarus detains US nationals ahead of presidential vote

Economic woes

Belarus still has sustained a severe economic blow after its leading exports customer, Russia, went into a pandemic-induced recession and other foreign markets shrank. Before the coronavirus, the country's state-controlled economy already had been stalled for years, stoking public frustration.

“Lukashenko lacks a plan to modernise the country. He has taken political freedoms away, and now he is depriving people of a chance for economic growth,” said Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the United States who planned to challenge Lukashenko for the presidency but fled to Russia with his children last month to avoid imminent arrest. “That is the main reason behind protests.”

When the presidential campaign began, authorities cracked down on the opposition with a renewed vigour. More than 1,300 protest participants have been detained since May, according to the Viasna human rights centre. The campaign chief for one of the candidates race was arrested outside a polling station on Friday and sentenced to 10 days in jail for allegedly organising an unauthorised mass gathering.

Standing outside the Minsk Tractor Plant in Belarus's capital, one worker spoke about his low salary, rising prices and “no glimpse of hope” in Belarus.

“No one trusts the government's promises anymore,” said Anton Rubankevich, 46, who makes the equivalent of $480 a month. “If this president stays, we will continue falling into a pit.”

Divisions among elite

Political observers say the election campaign also exposed divisions among the Belarusian elite as some of its members entered politics for the first time.

Along with former ambassador Tsepkalo, the head of a major Russia-controlled bank contemplated running against Lukashenko. The well-connected potential rival, Viktor Babariko, was jailed in May on money laundering and tax evasion charges that he rejected as politically driven.

Mass arrests

In what the political opposition and many independent observers regarded as an attempt to shore up the incumbent's sagging public support, Belarusian authorities last week arrested 33 Russian military contractors and charged them with plans to stage “mass riots”.

The arrest of the Russians marked an unprecedented spike in tensions between neighbouring Belarus and Russia, which often have acrimonious disputes despite their close ties.

When Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1996, Lukashenko aspired to use it as a vehicle to eventually lead a unified state as the successor to Russia's ailing president, Boris Yeltsin. The tables turned after Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000; the Belarusian leader began resisting what he saw as a Kremlin push for control over Belarus.

Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political expert based in Minsk, said he thinks the Kremlin hopes the stormy election campaign in Belarus will help erode Lukashenko's grip on power and make him more receptive to a closer integration of the two countries.

“Moscow is interested not in Lukashenko's ouster, but his maximal weakening so that he comes out of that campaign with undermined legitimacy, spoiled relations with the West and the economy in a poor shape,” Klaskovsky said. “A weakened and emaciated Lukashenko would be a gift for Moscow."

While election officials are likely to declare Lukashenko the winner by a landslide, his problems will not end with the vote.

“It will be about 80 percent of the vote for Lukashenko, so that his entourage doesn't think that the leader has grown weaker,” he predicted. “The government has enough resources and brute force to keep the power and suppress protests, but it lacks the answer to the main question about the path of Belarus' development. Lukashenko will undoubtedly win, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory.”

Source: TRTWorld and agencies