Belarusian authorities on Thursday detained the former head of a Russia-owned commercial bank who has emerged as the top challenger to Belarus’ authoritarian leader in the August election, a move that drew thousands of protesters to the streets.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term in the Aug. 9 vote, has accused Belgazprombank former chief executive Viktor Babariko of corruption and called him a “scoundrel.”
On Thursday, investigators detained Babariko after questioning him on allegations of tax evasion and money laundering. Babariko's detention follows Sunday's searches at the bank and the arrest of its 15 executives.
Babariko, who has yet to formally register for the presidential race, has denounced the authorities’ actions as part of an intimidation campaign. His campaign already has collected 425,000 signatures, while a minimum of 100,000 is needed for the nomination.
The Belarusian leader has ruled the nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, relentlessly cracking down on the opposition and independent media. Babariko is widely seen as the strongest of a dozen candidates who announced their intention to join the race.
Ivan Tertel, the head of the State Control Commitee, said that Babariko was detained because he allegedly “attempted to pressure witnesses and conceal the trace of the previous crimes.” Tertel alleged that Belgazprombank had allegedly channeled over $430 million to a Latvian bank.
Babariko's home was searched and his lawyers said they haven't been given access to him. Observers say that his detention reflects Lukashenko's nervousness.
“Babariko has been able to accumulate snowballing protest votes, and Lukashenko has felt a real threat of election defeat for the first time in quarter-century,” independent Minsk-based political analyst Valery Karbalevich said.
Several thousand demonstrators formed a chain that spread for about four kilometers (2.5 miles) across downtown Minsk. They waved the country's historical white-red-white flags used by the opposition and chanted “Freedom!”
Police warned the protesters that their gathering violated the law but refrained from using force.
“The authorities are treating us like idiots, but the Belarusians will no longer remain silent,” said Pyotr Derchuk, a 32-year-old information technology specialist. “What kind of election is it if Lukashenko's main rivals are behind bars?”
Tatyana Gurevich, a 42-year-old entrepreneur, said that “Babariko's detention kills the last hope for change in Belarus.”
Belgazprombank is majority owned by Russia’s state-run Gazprom natural gas company and Gazprombank, which is affiliated with it. The Russian owners have criticized the Belarusian authorities’ decision on Monday to introduce temporary administration at the bank as a “flagrant violation” of Belarusian law and rules of a Russia-led economic alliance.
Tertel charged that “big bosses at Gazprom and probably higher up" could have been involved in alleged violations at Belgazprombank.
Babariko's detention and the raid on the bank highlighted growing tensions between Lukashenko and the Kremlin.
Moscow long had provided cheap energy to help keep Belarus’ Soviet-style economy afloat, but last year it moved to cut subsidies, arguing that closer integration between the two allies is needed for Belarus to continue receiving Russian oil and gas at low prices.
Lukashenko has rejected the Kremlin push for closer political and economic integration, casting it as part of Moscow's efforts to force Belarus to abandon its post-Soviet independence.
As the election approaches, authorities also have intensified a crackdown on the opposition, detaining about 100 opposition activists across the country, including popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovski, who was collecting signatures for his wife’s nomination as a presidential candidate. His wife said she had been threatened along with her children.
“Lukashenko is using force ... to control the situation amid a deep economic crisis and growing discontent over the authorities' response to the pandemic,” Karbalevich said.
Belarus has been one of the few countries that hasn’t shut its borders and didn’t impose any restrictions to stem the outbreak.