Belarus Strongman Says Foreign Plot Foiled Amid Protests

Europe’s longest-serving president said his security forces thwarted a “foreign” plan to foment revolution as protests spread across the country following the arrests of potential challengers to his rule.

“We managed to make some pre-emptive steps and disrupt the large-scale plan to destabilize Belarus,” Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the post-Soviet nation since 1994,said during a meeting Friday with government officials in the capital, Minsk. “The masks have been torn off not only certain puppets we have here, but also the puppeteers who sit outside Belarus.” He didn’t elaborate on who his authorities saw behind the plot.

Even after his statement, thousands of people lined streets in Minsk and other cities for a second day on Friday to protest the detention of Lukashenko’s opponents, including popular YouTube blogger Sergey Tikhonovskiy and former banker Viktor Babariko. More than 100 people were detained across the country, including several journalists, Minsk-based human rights organization Viasnasaid on its website. The European Unionurged the immediate release of Babariko and his allies, whom local human rights groupscalled political prisoners.

“An increasingly larger part of Belarusian society is beginning to realize that Lukashenko’s opponents are in a majority,” said Andrei Yeliseyeu, a research director at the Warsaw-based EAST Center. “For many years Belarusian authorities were quite successful at creating a myth about Lukashenko’s electoral majority. Thanks to the growing popularity of new media and messengers like Telegram, access to information among Belarusians has greatly improved.”

Babariko, who is seeking to register as a candidate for the Aug. 9 presidential election, and his son Eduard, who is helping to run his campaign, weredetained on Thursday. About 20 people are now being held in connection with aprobe into the Russian-owned bank Babariko ran for about two decades before he sought to challenge Lukashenko. His team has vowed to continue the campaign even while their contender remains in the custody of the country’s main security agency, the KGB.

While the crackdown onBelgazprombank raised speculation of a widening rift with Russia that started over issues of energy prices and political integration, Lukashenko accepted President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to visit Moscow with his sons for the World War II victory parade on June 24.

Russia is unwilling to interfere in “an internal affair” of Belarus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday. “The Kremlin doesn’t have its own candidate in the elections in Belarus.”

Any problems between the neighboring countries can be resolved, despite some “sparks,” Lukashenkosaid during a meeting on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Minsk.

“A spark is needed for ignition, to get things moving forward,” Lavrov replied.

— With assistance by Sara Marley

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