As Belarus votes in tightly controlled elections, its leader accuses the West of fueling unrest

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — The authoritarian leader of Belarus on Tuesday accused the West of trying to foment protests during parliamentary and local elections this month in order to undermine his rule, while the country’s opposition leader-in-exile denounced the vote as a “cynical farce” and called for its boycott.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for nearly 30 years, charged that the West will try to use “new triggers to destabilize the society” after the Feb. 25 vote.

Early balloting began Tuesday in the tightly-controlled parliamentary and local vote, in which only those who follow Lukashenko’s political course were allowed to compete. Most candidates belong to the four officially registered parties, which all support Lukashenko’s policies: Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Labor and Justice.

This is the first election in Belarus since the contentious 2020 presidential vote that handed Lukashenko his sixth term in office and triggered an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations.

Protests swept the country for months, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets. More than 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten in police custody, and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were shut down and outlawed.

Lukashenko has relied on Russian subsidies and political support to survive the protests. He allowed the Kremlin to use Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

This month’s election takes place amid a relentless crackdown on dissent. Over 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, including leaders of opposition parties and renowned human rights advocate and 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski.

The Viasna human rights center reported Tuesday that Ihar Lednik, one of the leaders of the opposition Social Democratic Party, had died in prison at age 64. Lednik, who was serving a three-year sentence after being convicted of slandering Lukashenko, has died of cardiac arrest following a surgery in prison.

Viasna said that Lednik’s death marked the fifth death of a political prisoner in custody over the last three years.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in exile in neighboring Lithuania after challenging Lukashenko in the 2020 vote, called for boycotting the election.

“We are calling for a boycott of this cynical farce because this imitation of election has nothing to do with democracy,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press. “Belarusians inside the country hate this regime, but they can’t openly say that due to brutal repressions.”

Speaking during a meeting Tuesday with top Belarusian law enforcement officials, Lukashenko alleged that Western countries were pondering plans to stage a coup in the country or try to seize power by force. He claimed, without offering evidence, that Polish authorities in particular could use blackmail and threats to try to convince senior Belarusian officials to switch allegiances.

Belarusian police said they have beefed up patrols across the country ahead of the vote.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement that the bloc denounces “continued senseless violation of human rights and unprecedented level of repression ahead of the upcoming elections” in Belarus, adding that “those responsible will be held to account.”

Belarus has refused to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election. Belarus is a member of the OSCE, and the group’s monitors have been the only international observers at Belarusian elections for decades.

Valery Karbalevich, an independent Belarusian political analyst, observed that Lukashenko treats the election as a “military operation.”

“This is the continuation of the concept of election as a war, a military operation in which the Belarusian leader is fighting internal and external foes,” Karbalevich said. “Authorities in Belarus see any election as a threat and a pretext to step up repressions and tighten the screws.”