At least 63,000 people gathered Thursday, July 30 in a park in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, in support of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, for the largest gathering of opponents for at least a decade in Belarus.

Earlier in the day, authorities accused two imprisoned opposition leaders, Sergei Tikhanovsky, husband of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and Mikola Statkevich, of having sought to organize "mass riots" before the 9 August with the help of a private military company considered close to the Kremlin, named Wagner.

This accusation is a new twist in an eventful electoral campaign, marked by a violent repression targeting demonstrators and opponents. Despite this, the election promises to be thorny for President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 2014 and facing unusually strong mobilization from the opposition.

Russia accused of wanting to destabilize Belarus

On Wednesday, the police arrested 33 Russians presented as Wagner "fighters" seeking to "destabilize" Belarus. These allegations provoked bitter exchanges with Moscow.

Historical allies, Russia and Belarus have maintained strained relations since the end of 2019, Alexander Lukashenko having accused Russia of wanting to reduce his country to the state of vassal and of meddling in the August 9 ballot, which Moscow denies.

Speaking to her supporters, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, for her part, accused the authorities of "breaking" the life of her husband and "other Belarusian political prisoners", adding that the arrest of the Russian paramilitaries was "frightening".

"No one will believe that these fighters were sent to us for the elections. That they wanted to make a revolution here. What a revolution? We want freedom," she added.

According to Andrei Ravkov, Secretary of State of the Belarusian Security Council, the 33 men arrested on Wednesday belong to a group of 200 people: "We are looking for the others, they are like a needle in a haystack".

Russia has denied any attempt at destabilization. "It is obvious that this cannot be the case, Russia and Belarus are allies, the closest partners," reacted Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.

In a statement, Russian diplomacy said the men worked for a Belarusian company and were in transit to Istanbul. "Any attempt to present what happened as outside interference in the affairs of the (Belarusian) republic is, to say the least, mind-boggling," we read.

Wagner is regularly accused of deploying mercenaries abroad - Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Central African Republic - interventions with which Russia does not want to be officially associated.

The Belarusian authorities say that the suspects were to destabilize the country on the occasion of the presidential election, Lukashenko, 65, considering that Russia, his main ally for 26 years, now supports his opponents.

Svetalana Tikhanovskaïa, unexpected candidate

After having replaced her husband at short notice in the presidential race, Svetalana Tikhanovskaya has unexpectedly become a political phenomenon, whose rallies draw crowds never seen before in the country.

She joined forces with Maria Kolesnikova, the former campaign manager of another jailed opponent, and Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of a third detractor of the regime now in exile on Russian territory.

The latter announced Thursday the arrest of her sister and her summons by the police in an investigation targeting her husband, "political pressure", according to her.

Since coming to power in 1994, President Lukashenko has never seemed so contested as during this electoral campaign, galvanized by the arrival of new faces.

If he has accused the West on numerous occasions of wanting to dismiss him in the past, this is the first time he has attacked Russia in this way and some consider that the case is a staging orchestrated by the Belarusian authorities.

Lukashenko and Putin have seen each other several times in recent months, including twice in June, in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve their differences.

With AFP

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