A popular YouTuber, Sergei Tikhanovsky, summoned thousands of people to sign ballot petitions under an anti-corruption slogan of “Stop the cockroach,” and supporters brought slippers, the preferred way to squash household pests. He drove around in a car with a giant slipper tied to the roof. Then, a longtime Minsk banker, Viktor Babariko, set out to challenge Mr. Lukashenko and collected what he says are 400,000 signatures, far more than the 100,000 required to get on the ballot. Mr. Babariko, who led a bank closely tied to Russia’s national gas giant, Gazprom, has called for democracy, separation of powers and presidential term limits, and says he wants a country “where the people are respected.”
Mr. Lukashenko has survived past challenges, by portraying himself as the only choice for stability, rigging the election and jailing foes. But this time he faces unhappiness not only over economic stagnation but also over his lackluster pandemic response, which consisted of ridiculing concerns about the virus and advising people to head to the sauna and drink more vodka. Now, Belarus has 59,945 cases of the virus in a population of 9.4 million, while neighboring Poland has 32,821 in a population four times larger.
Mr. Lukashenko has responded with the only weapon he knows. Mr. Tikhanovsky was charged June 11 with violating public order and assaulting police at a rally to collect signatures. Mr. Lukashenko probably hoped to bottle him up until after the vote, but now Mr. Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana, has collected enough signatures to run in his place. On June 18, Mr. Babariko was detained, along with 15 top bank executives, on suspicion of financial crimes. The jailings are clearly political, intended to keep both men from campaigning. The arrests triggered street protests and the detention of more than 100 activists and more than a dozen journalists.
Mr. Lukashenko knows how to navigate between the big powers. He has toyed with closer union with Russia, where President Vladimir Putin does not want Belarus to veer toward the West. He has flirted with the Trump administration, meeting in February with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. But the recent developments suggest that Mr. Lukashenko’s grip at home is less sure. People are fed up with his antics and exhausted by economic stagnation. The question is whether they can be heard on Aug. 9, or whether Mr. Lukashenko will resort to fraud and force to hang on once more.