Tens of thousands of supporters of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s top election rival on Thursday rallied in Minsk despite an increasing crackdown on the opposition.
The rally came as Belarusian authorities accused top members of the opposition of collaborating with Russian fighters to destabilize the ex-Soviet country.
Backers of political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a stay-at-home mother of two, packed a Minsk square in what appeared to be the largest opposition protest in the ex-Soviet country in a decade, a journalist said.
A sea of people waved flags and balloons emblazoned with the opposition’s campaign symbols — a victory sign, a clenched fist, and a heart.
“Change!” read one of the placards.
The human rights organization Vyasna said at least 63,000 people had turned out.
Earlier on Thursday, Belarusian investigators accused Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, and another prominent critic, Mikola Statkevich, of working with Russian mercenaries to plot mass unrest ahead of the Aug. 9 election.
Tikhanovsky and Statkevich were jailed in the run-up to the polls.
The accusation that they were involved with Russian mercenaries was just the latest twist in an extraordinary election campaign in which the 65-year-old Lukashenko, who has dominated Belarus for nearly three decades, is seeking a sixth term in the face of rising anger over his rule.
Belarusian authorities on Wednesday detained 33 Russian “militants” on a mission to destabilize the ex-Soviet country. The detentions sparked an apparent crisis in ties with ally Moscow, which denied any involvement.
The authorities say the detained men are members of the Wagner group, a shadowy military contractor reportedly controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin that promotes Moscow’s interests in Syria, Libya and Ukraine.
Addressing her supporters at the rally, Tikhanovskaya, 37, said authorities were “ruining” not only her husband’s life but those of all political prisoners.
“The situation involving the fighters is very scary,” she said to shouts of “Freedom.”
She denied that the opposition was collaborating with the Russians to stage an uprising.
“People, what revolution? We want honest elections,” said Tikhanovskaya, who has emerged as Lukashenko’s top rival after main would-be candidates were jailed.
She questioned the timing of the arrests, saying that Russian private contractors might have been transiting through Belarus for a long time.
“I have a question: Where was the security service before and why are they raising this issue right before the election?” she said.
Investigators opened a criminal case against “Tikhanovsky, Statkevich and 33 detained Russian citizens.”
“They acted together,” spokesman Sergei Kabakovich said.
An Investigative Committee also said another criminal probe had been launched against Tikhanovsky for inciting “social hostility” and calling for violence against police.
Tikhanovsky, 41, is a popular blogger, who has nicknamed Lukashenko the “cockroach.”
Statkevich, 63, challenged Lukashenko in a 2010 election and was sentenced to six years in prison afterwards. Lukashenko’s top election rival, former banker Viktor Babaryko, has been accused of financial crimes and also jailed.
Moscow has denied any involvement.
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