Belarus Leader Warns of Violence Ahead of Weekend Presidential Elections  

In a winding state of the nation speech before lawmakers on Tuesday, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko warned that political enemies at home and abroad were planning violence ahead of the country’s upcoming presidential elections — and vowed his government would not tolerate a street revolution.   
 
“So far there is no open warfare, no shooting, the trigger has not yet been pulled. But an attempt to organize a massacre in the center of Minsk is already obvious,” said Lukashenko, 65, the only president Belarusians have known ever since the nation of 9.5 million gained independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Lukashenko’s speech came just days before a Sunday vote that looks to be the most serious challenge to a more than quarter century rule that has earned the Belarusian leader the undesirable nickname “the last dictator of Europe.”   Now seeking a sixth straight term in office, the Belarusian leader has run into an unexpectedly strong opponent in Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a political novice who stepped in as a placeholder candidate after authorities arrested her husband — the political blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky — on trumped up charges she says were intended to keep him out of the election.    FILE – Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya shows her registration certificate as she leaves the central election commission in Minsk, Belarus, July 14, 2020.Backed by the wives of other male would-be challengers banned from the race, Tikhanovskaya has drawn huge crowds in speeches across the country — a fact that Lukashenko mocked in his speech before a grim unsmiling audience of loyalists who broke out into occasional applause.  “They found those three unhappy girls. They don’t even understand what they’re reading, what they’ve written for them,” said Lukashenko, who added the women were controlled by “puppet masters” abroad without elaborating.  Moscow’s hand    Adding another layer of uncertainty in the elections are Belarus’ increasingly strained relations with its larger neighbor, Russia.  “Russia has always been and will always be our close ally irrespective of who takes power in Belarus or Russia,” assured Lukashenko.  Yet Lukashenko said the relationship had shifted from “brotherly” to “partner-like” as Belarus has chafed with Russia over issues such as gas politics, Lukashenko’s response to the coronavirus, and a long-stalled plan to create a joint union with Belarus as the lesser partner.  FILE – Opposition supporters wearing protective face masks wait in a line to put signatures in support of their potential candidates in the upcoming presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, May 31, 2020.Human rights groups have condemned what they say is an oppressive state trying to determine the outcome of elections that international observers say are neither free nor fair.  Following Lukashenko’s speech there were reports of dozens of detentions by state security forces at scheduled rallies.  But Valer Tsapkala,  a would-be challenger to the Belarusian leader who was barred from participation in the race, said winning what was essentially a fixed election was not the point of the race.   If fellow citizens could not have their votes counted by Lukashenko’s government, suggested Tspakala, then at least they could have their voices heard. “If we have some 20,000 people going out [to protest] on election day, then it is possible that the resources he has at his disposal — by which I mean the Interior Ministry — will be sufficient to disperse the crowd,” said Tsapkala in an interview with “Current Time”, a partner project of VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  “But if we have 100,000 people out,” Tsapkala said, “Lukashenko will simply board a plane and fly away somewhere.”     

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