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‘This is a new Belarus’ Viktor Babariko is Lukashenko’s main opponent in the Belarusian presidential elections. Now he’s been put under arrest.

Source: Meduza
Natalya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Belarus is set to hold presidential elections on August 9. For the first time in the 26 years that Alexander Lukashenko has been president, there’s a twist: hundreds of thousands of people are backing candidacy for independent politicians and attending rallies to show their support. At the same time, those supporting Lukashenko’s rivals have faced threats and police raids. 

Lukashenko’s most popular opponent is the banker Viktor Babariko, who headed “Belgazprombank” for the past 20 years. Belarusian law enforcement carried out searches and arrested employees at Belgazprombank just a few days ago, and Lukashenko has personally accused his opponent of fraud.

On June 18 — just a few hours after Meduza first published his interview with special correspondent Andrey Pertsev — reports emerged that Viktor Babariko had been arrested and taken to the Belarusian State Control Committee for questioning. His home outside of Minsk was searched, as well.

During his earlier conversation with Meduza, Babariko commented on the raids at Belgazprombank, making clear that he hasn’t worked there for more than a month: he left his post on May 12, 2020, and then announced his plans to run for president. Although he claimed that no one got in touch with him over the raids, he also acknowledged that the search was likely politically motivated.  

“As I understand it, everyone knows perfectly well that this is mostly a political order, linked to me,” he said. “The horror here is the pretrial detentions targeting my closest friends. In addition to the bank employees themselves, they arrested the people who make up my inner circle. After 72 hours, they haven’t charged them with anything and are continuing to hold them for 10 days. People need to have great courage to withstand this kind of pressure.” 

With Babariko and his colleagues facing political persecution, it’s fair to wonder whether or not he stands a chance in the presidential race. Elections in Belarus have not been known to be free or fair. That said, polls among tens of thousands of respondents conducted by popular news sites show that Babariko pulls in about 50 percent of the vote — defeating Lukashenko’s mere 10 percent. 

Babariko says that his team is witnessing a similar situation while campaigning at the grassroots level. “We are seeing how the number of supporters for alternative candidates is growing. We, for example, collected more than 300,000 signatures, even though [100,000] is enough for registration,” he explains. “We are not hiding the numbers, we talk about them, and this is what irritates the authorities most of all.”

Photos have also appeared in the media showing people joining long lines to support the candidacy of independent politicians. “That’s the thing: people aren’t signing [in support of] the current leader. This photo also irritates the authorities,” Babariko said.

When asked if he fears that he’ll be banned from registering as an official presidential candidate, Babarikov expressed hopes that the sheer number of his supporters will secure his spot in the race. “In the history of modern Belarus there is no precedent of a candidate who collected more than 100,000 signatures not being registered. Never! If this happens, then it means that the government is so scared that it’s immediately admitting defeat,” he said.

Supporters of independent candidates rally in Belarus on June 7, 2020.
Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Babariko believes that seeing this kind of political engagement is both new and frightening for the Belarusian authorities. He points out that Lukashenko has a tendency to belittle Belarusian citizens and treat them like “an asset belonging to the country’s leadership.” In Babariko’s opinion, Belarus’s citizens have had enough.

“Belarusians are a fairly calm people, but they are tired of putting up with such disrespect,” Babariko warns. “The authorities don’t understand that the issue is not that there are now alternative candidates […]. The issue is that Belarus will never be the same as it was before. This is a new Belarus.”

Babariko explained that he is campaigning on the slogan “I am a manager” because he sees the role of the president as that of “the leader of a company, where the people are the shareholders.” “The people like this, people understand that they are the owners of the country, and not slaves in a private company,” he told Meduza.

Similarly, his decision to run for president was motivated by what he perceives as the mismanagement of the country, both from an economic perspective and in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The Belarusian authorities have only talked about their economic miracle, but didn’t advertise that this miracle was built on convenient gas prices, oil refining opportunities, and loans that were given to us,” Babarikov underscored. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the “government showed incredible neglect,” he continued. “This is where something happened that no one expected — civil society worked. Belarusians began to unite, to protect their medical workers and to protect themselves. They understood that they could handle it themselves.”

Meanwhile, Babarikov had a personal realization at this time: “I also understood that I want to live and always wanted to live in a separate, independent state, where the government doesn’t destroy, but protects [its citizens] — so that my grandchildren can live in such a country,” he told Meduza. 

An opposition rally in Minsk on May 24, 2020
Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Babarikov says the Belarusian authorities have spent 26 years trying to convince the public that the country is surrounded by enemies. When asked about the political mood in Belarus, Babarikov insists that it is neither pro-Russian, nor pro-European: “The choice of the Belarusian people is pro-Belarus. We want our own country, an economically independent country. And that’s it!” 

“Belarusians are united by one thing: now we want to build a truly independent country, and then sort [it all] out. This is the main idea, and the government doesn’t want to see it,” he said.

In conversation with Meduza, Babarikov insisted that he won’t let political persecution keep him out of the race. “I know I am ready to withstand such pressure, so we can continue the fight,” he said. “Now I feel guilty about the fact that my friends are being persecuted. But my friends and family said, ‘We’ll tolerate it until August 9, we’ve already suffered so much in [this] country, where you are absolutely powerless.’ Belarusians can’t live in such a country any more and they don’t want to.”

Babarikov is also “absolutely sure” that Belarus will see a change of power this year. “The scariest thing is that the government, which could leave quietly and peacefully now, doesn’t understand that none of the [independent] candidates are calling for lustration or any executions. Everyone is saying, ‘Guys, 26 years is a long enough term’,” he explained.

“Of course there is [one] question: will everything happen on August 9 or even later, in 2021? But Belarusians are already different. Obviously the authorities are thinking ‘We’ll carry out the elections somehow and then everything will go back to the way it was before.’ It won’t go back!” 

Interview by Andrey Pertsev 

Summary by Eilish Hart

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