A Holding Cell for Every Candidate
By Irina Khalip. Novaya gazeta, June 22, 2020, p. 8. Complete text:
Minsk – Apparently, when [Belarussian President Aleksandr] Lukashenko jailed all [other] presidential candidates 10 years ago [see Vol. 62, No. 51‑52, pp. 1‑6], he was the picture of restraint.*** After all, back then he didn’t lost his nerve until election day. Until then, he seemed almost normal – at least for those who didn’t live in Belarus. But that’s hardly the case now.
The collection of signatures [in support of presidential hopefuls in the 2020 race] is not even over yet, and two potential candidates have already wound up behind bars, along with members of their initiative groups. On June 18, former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babariko and his son Eduard went to the Central Electoral Commission to register, but never made it [see Vol. 72, No. 25, pp. 12‑13]. They were detained and brought to financial investigation department of the State Oversight Committee (SOC). Lawyers were not allowed to see the detainees – they were told training was under way. When journalists arrived at the SOC, a person in a suit showed up and locked the door from the inside. In the evening, the father and son were transferred to a KGB pretrial detention center.
Criminal cases against them had been launched a week earlier. On June 11, about 50 SOC employees conducted a search at [Belgazprombank]. In the evening, it turned out that two criminal charges had been filed: tax evasion and money laundering. Arrests began the next day, but Babariko remained free.
First, several members of the initiative group who worked at Belgazprombank were arrested. This was followed by the arrest of Svetlana Kupreyeva, a Babariko family friend. Svetlana is a retired accountant who lives in a modest apartment with her 81-year-old mother and does bookkeeping for some small businesses to supplement her income. She never worked at Belgazprombank – she just happened to be a longtime friend of Viktor Babariko’s wife Marina (who died three years ago). The SOC officers who detained Svetlana Kupreyeva left a warrant in her apartment that states she is suspected of tax evasion with damages to the state estimated at 8,950,222 Belarussian rubles (almost $4 million).
Following Babariko’s arrest on June 18, [Belarussian] Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei invited European Union ambassadors [to a meeting]. Of course, Makei was merely providing a platform – the talking head was SOC chairman Ivan Tertel. He went on for a long time about how Babariko is a criminal who siphoned half a million dollars abroad, and that even in Europe you get a prison sentence for that and things don’t get politicized.
On Friday [June 19], the SOC was joined by the prosecution system and, naturally, the KGB. Belarussian Prosecutor General Aleksandr Konyuk stated that because Babariko headed a criminal group, another criminal case has been launched under Art. 285 (“creating an organized crime group”). And since the banker’s actions as head of this organized crime group damaged national security interests, the case is being handed over to the KGB. Given this slew of charges, Babariko is clearly going to remain in jail not just until the election, but after it as well.
While Viktor Babariko and members of his initiative group are in a KGB pretrial detention center, another candidate and his associates are being held in Minsk’s Pretrial Detention Center No. 1 – namely, Sergei Tikhanovsky (a popular blogger who runs the “Country for Life” YouTube channel) and 10 other people. At first, the authorities refused to even register Tikhanovsky’s initiative group – he was thrown in jail for 15 days and refused registration under the pretext that he needed to sign in person. Tikhanovsky’s wife Svetlana then registered the group as hers, and appointed her husband as director. That helped, but not for long: Tikhanovsky was arrested on May 29 at a rally to collect signatures, together with 10 others in the initiative group. They have all been charged under Art. 342 (“organizing activities that grossly violate public order”).
On Thursday and Friday – the last days to collect signatures – Belarussians held rallies in solidarity with the political prisoners: They lined up, ostensibly to give signatures, and the queues went on for miles. In Minsk, they stretched from Yakub Kolas Square to Independence Square. Similar rallies took place in Grodno, Brest, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Lida, Pruzhany, Molodechno and Soligorsk. People stood on the streets until late into the night without any kind of posters (after all, this was a line to submit signatures, and everyone stuck to that format). Only occasionally, they would shout, “Let [them] go!” Passing cars honked in support, and Viktor Tsoi’s song “We Want Change!” – what else! – could be heard from open windows. It was clear to everyone that at that moment,“3% Sasha” (Belarussians’ only nickname for Lukashenko at that point [after online polling showed that Lukashenko had support from only 3% of voters – Trans.]) was losing his last 3%.
[Lukashenko] can still leave voluntarily or hold the election and finally lose honestly. He can even flee the country, taking along the paintings stolen from Belgazprombank. But for some reason, he’s not doing that. He’s probably pinning his hopes on the siloviki [defense, security and law-enforcement officials – Trans.]. But even they may lose their nerve. Lukashenko likes to recall how [former Uzbek leader Islam] Karimov and [Tajik President Emomali] Rakhmon shot their own people. “My friend Rakhmon entered Tajikistan’s capital with a machine gun to establish order.” Of course, Lukashenko’s memory is spotty: He remembers Rakhmon, but for some reason has forgotten about [Romanian leader Nicolae] Ceausescu.
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