Protesters have clashed with riot police for the third night running in cities across Belarus as the European Union threatened to reimpose sanctions over suspected vote-rigging and a violent crackdow… Read More
Sergei Cherechen, the leader of the Social Democrat party
Andrei Dmitriyev, the co-chair of the Tell the Truth movement, a campaign group which has been raided by the authorities
Two key opposition figures were barred from running and threw their weight behind Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign.
Noisy defiance as election looms
By Abdujalil Abdurasulov, BBC News, Minsk
The calm streets of Minsk sporadically burst with the noise of drivers honking their car horns. Some flew a flag with a red stripe on the white background – the symbol used by the opposition.
Voicing dissent is dangerous in Belarus but activists still make noise despite a crackdown. People can be detained even for playing the wrong music, as happened to two DJs at a government-sponsored event in Minsk earlier this week.
It is this defiance that is making the election if not unpredictable then at least the most challenging for Aleksander Lukashenko.
Since the start of the election campaign in May, more than 2,000 people have been detained, according to Human Rights Centre Viasna.
Early voting began on 4 August and monitoring groups say their volunteers have frequently been prevented from observing the vote and even arrested.
Rumours have spread widely that the government is going to shut down mobile networks on Sunday to hide mass falsification of the results.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has accused Russia of lying about a “mercenary” group arrested in Belarus last week and says another such group has infiltrated his country.
“Today we heard of another unit sent into the south,” he said in an address to the nation. “We’ll catch them all.”
Russia has denied that the 33 Russians held were plotting terrorism and were linked to anti-Lukashenko activists.
Anti-Lukashenko protests have grown, as he seeks re-election on 9 August.
Russia has said the 33 – claimed to be members of the shadowy Wagner mercenary group – were only transiting via Belarus en route to Istanbul. And Russia insists they had no mission to interfere in the Belarus presidential election.
“All this about Istanbul, Venezuela, Africa and Libya – it’s a lie. These people – they have already given testimony – were sent into Belarus on purpose. The order was to wait,” Mr Lukashenko said, in his televised annual address.
He said the Russians could have flown directly to an overseas destination – there was no need for them to enter Belarus to do so.
“So far there is no open warfare, no shooting, the trigger has not yet been pulled, but an attempt to organise a massacre in the centre of Minsk is already obvious,” he alleged.
Russia has urged Belarus to release the men, who have been named by Belarusian officials, though the Wagner connection has not been independently confirmed.
The Wagner group is reported to have played a significant role in eastern Ukraine, helping the pro-Russian rebels there, as well as in Syria, Libya and some other conflict zones.
The Belarusian authorities have been cracking down on opposition figures and peaceful protests in the run-up to Sunday’s poll.
Long, fiery speech
BBC Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford reports that Mr Lukashenko seemed agitated and his long, fiery speech was full of warnings of plots and threats against Belarus.
He called his big rival in this election – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – a “poor little girl”, manipulated by foreign “puppet masters”.
This suggests a man nervous ahead of a vote seen as the biggest challenge yet to his 26-year rule, as mass opposition rallies reveal the increasing frustration of many voters, our correspondent adds.
Early voting began on Tuesday. Western governments and human rights groups have long complained that Mr Lukashenko harasses opponents, controls the media and marginalises independent voices.
Political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya stepped into the election race after her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTube blogger, was barred from standing and jailed.
The authorities allege that the arrested Russians were collaborating with Mr Tikhanovsky; his wife dismissed that “very scary” claim. Their five-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son have been taken abroad for their own safety.
Mr Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has been criticised over his handling of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic. He has urged Belarusians to carry on as normal, scorning the lockdowns imposed by the rest of Europe to curb the virus.
In any other year, hundreds of thousands of Russians would have marched with portraits of relatives who fought in the second world war in a memorial called the Immortal Regiment.
But on Saturday, the images of Soviet veterans and their families floated past on Russian television, a public vigil adapted for the era of social isolation.
The coronavirus outbreak transformed Russia’s 9 May Victory Day celebrations, a holiday usually marked by family gatherings, memorials and an elaborate military parade on Red Square.
“Of course it is hard, it is a real shame,” said Svetlana Fomina, an elementary school teacher returning from a shopping trip. “But I don’t see any other choice than to stay home. It would be ridiculous to mark [Victory Day] by everyone getting sick.”
Things looked very different in neighbouring Belarus, where elderly veterans and thousands more viewers packed on to bleachers for the usual military parade. Few were wearing masks.
“This year, let the military parade in Minsk be the only one in the post-Soviet space,” boasted Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s president, who has publicly downplayed the dangers from the pandemic. The country has more than 22,000 cases of the disease and has recorded 126 deaths.
He appeared to relish upstaging Moscow’s celebrations.
“In this insane, disoriented world, there will be people who condemn us for the time and place of this sacred act,” he said defiantly. “Don’t rush to conclusions or condemn us, descendants of the victory of Belarusians. We couldn’t have acted differently. We had no other choice. And even if we had one, we would have done the same.”
In Russia, however, where the tally of coronavirus infections on Saturday approached 200,000, and the capital’s climbed past 100,000, they chose to do it differently.
City authorities in Moscow were desperate for people to stay at home, with police detaining several activists with flags marking the holiday at Pushkin Square.
Vladimir Putin appeared in an overcast Moscow for the first time in more than a month to lay a bouquet of red roses at the Eternal Flame and vow to hold the parade as soon as possible. “We will, as usual, celebrate the anniversary widely and solemnly, and we will do it with dignity, as is our duty to those who suffered and achieved this victory,” he said. He was accompanied by a guard of honour and observed an airforce flypast, the only element of the military parade preserved this year.
Elsewhere some of the most committed got creative. Volunteers in Novosibirsk climbed cherry-pickers to sing war ballads to veterans on their balconies. News programmes urged families to mount images of veterans on their windows and take part in a national moment of silence at 7pm, followed by a rendition of the song Victory Day from their balconies. The authorities hope an array of online concerts, digital museum tours and popular war films on TV will keep Russians occupied and off the streets.
When all else fails, there are always reruns. A sports channels played repeats of Russia’s victories at a recent hockey tournament. And as soon as Putin finished his short visit to the Eternal Flame, the state television channel flipped over to footage of troops, tanks and other military hardware rolling across Red Square to mark the holiday in years past.