EU states have voiced fear of violence during Belarus elections on Sunday (9 August), as president Aleksander Lukashenko seeks to maintain his third decade in power.
“We call on the Belarusian leadership to … refrain from violence” and to “respect the will of the Belarusian people”, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland said on Friday.
Lukashenko should “avoid using force against peaceful protesters”, EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell also said.
Large crowds were expected in central Minsk on Sunday evening after a vote marked by the late emergence of a popular opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose rally drew 63,000 people ahead of the weekend.
The last time Belarus saw a flare-up in political violence was after rigged elections in 2010, which prompted EU sanctions.
But the run-up to Sunday has already seen what international charity Amnesty International called a “brutal crackdown by Belarusian law enforcement”.
Lukashenko has jailed, disqualified, or forced into exile other opposition leaders.
He has also imprisoned 1,300 other people, according to Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group.
And his police have been doing it using “excessive force”, Amnesty International said.
“In many cases, footage shows people being dragged violently into unmarked vehicles by gangs of unidentified men in plain clothes,” it said.
Lukashenko has also mobilised paratroopers, anti-riot police, and special forces from his KGB intelligence service in a show of force ahead of election day.
And he has warned that foreign powers – either the West or Russia – were planning a coup.
Belarus detained a group of 33 Russians from the Kremlin-linked private security firm Wagner on 29 July, accusing them of a conspiracy.
Lukashenko then claimed, on Thursday, that a second military unit had infiltrated the country and was preparing to strike.
“A hybrid war is going on against Belarus, and we should expect dirty tricks from any side … We don’t even know who they [the second unit] are: Americans with Nato, or someone from Ukraine, or our eastern brothers [Russia] showing their affection toward us this way,” he said on Thursday.
Threats of violence, warnings of false-flag operations, and use of agent provocateurs to stir trouble in crowds is nothing new to the Belarusian opposition after 26 years of Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule.
But there was extra heat this time round from what Borrell called the “unprecedented political mobilisation in favour of free elections”, fuelled by Lukashenko’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
And there were fresh fears that Russia would find it easier to rule Belarus if he was deposed.
An opposition source, who asked not to be named, added to tension by disclosing an alleged Lukashenko plot to retain power.
Under the alleged scheme, covert special forces from the KGB’s “Alpha” unit would inflict gunshot wounds on Belarusian anti-riot police in scuffles on Sunday night to justify a security lockdown of the capital city.
The Alpha unit would also accost a group of alleged Russian mercenaries at the hotel Europa in central Minsk, the source said, based on testimony by four informants in Belarusian security services.
Lukashenko’s attempt to play the West against Russia, for instance with a false-flag coup attempt, would also be nothing new.
For his part, Russian president Vladimir Putin told Lukashenko by phone on Thursday that he wanted “a stable political situation in Belarus” and “a calm atmosphere” on election day, according to a Kremlin statement.
But whatever else happens after the vote, the Belarusian electoral commission is set to declare Lukashenko to have won.
“We are concerned that neither OSCE/ODIHR, nor OSCE PA or Pace were given the opportunity to observe the electoral process,” the French, German, and Polish foreign ministers also said, referring to Europe’s independent election-monitoring bodies.
The EU, 10 years ago, reacted to a wave of brutality by blacklisting 174 Belarusian officials and a handful of companies and imposing an arms embargo.
The arms embargo and a ban on four officials suspected of murdering opposition activists some 20 years ago are still in place.
But the rest of the sanctions were lifted in 2016 in the name of improving relations.