Belarus presidential hopeful to work with barred candidates

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — An opposition candidate challenging Belarus’ longtime authoritarian leader in next month’s presidential vote said Friday that she will rely on support from other would-be candidates who have been barred from the race.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country of 9.5 million with an iron hand for 26 years, is expected to easily win a sixth term in the August 9 election despite a wave of opposition protests.

Earlier this week, the election commission ruled to bar Lukashenko’s two main rivals from the race, leaving Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, wife of jailed popular opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, as the most visible challenger.

Tikhanovskaya said at a news conference Friday that she would unite efforts with the campaigns of Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babariko, who were denied registration. She added that she’s also open to coordination with three other candidates left on the ballot.

“Like all of you, we don’t believe that the election will be fair, but we can protect our votes only by pulling our efforts together,” Tikhanovskaya said.

Her husband has been jailed since May on charges of attacking a police officer, which he rejected as a provocation, and Tikhanovskaya said she has repeatedly received threats.

Babariko, the former head of a Russia-owned bank, gathered more than 400,000 signatures in support of his candidacy — four times the number needed — but was jailed last month on money-laundering charges he rejected as politically-driven.

Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and a founder of a successful technology park, submitted 160,000 signatures to qualify for the race, but election officials ruled that only 75,000 were valid, less than the 100,000 needed. He criticized the ruling as politically biased.

The European Union on Tuesday called the decision to deny Babariko and Tsepkalo spots on the ballot “seemingly arbitrary.”

Lukashenko, 65, who relentlessly suppressed the opposition and independent media throughout his rule, scaled down repressions against his foes in recent years as part of efforts to curry favor with the West. But as the election approached and protests widened, Belarusian authorities unleashed a new sweeping crackdown on critics.

Lukashenko’s refusal to impose any restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic — which he dismissed as “psychosis” — and the weakening economy has sparked tensions and helped swell support for opposition candidates.

Earlier this week, thousands of Belarusians protested the exclusion of the opposition candidates from the race, and hundreds were detained by police.

Overall since May more than 1,000 people have been detained for taking part in the protests, according to the Vysna human rights center.

Tikhanovskaya said that the release of political prisoners is a key demand of her campaign.