MINSK (Reuters) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, once dubbed the last dictator in Europe by Washington, has seen protests come and go in his 26 years in power, but none quite like the one that is rippling through his usually loyal support base now.
The police have arrested hundreds in an effort to quell anti-government protests before an Aug. 9 presidential election, according to the government and human rights groups. But several police officers are among those who have taken to social media to challenge him, posting selfies with their faces covered by signs such as “Lukashenko is not my president”.
And even one of the country’s prominent athletes, usually loyal to the sports-loving president, has publicly criticised Lukashenko on Instagram for running the country like a “game without rules”.
“Candidates are put in jail, people are gagged. This is not the future of Belarus. Alexander Grigoryevich - you are not my president,” wrote basketball player Nikita Meshcheryakov, in a post that was later deleted.
The 65-year-old former boss of a Soviet collective farm is still widely expected to win a sixth term in office. Western monitoring agencies have not judged an election in the country to be free and fair since 1995.
But Lukashenko’s crackdown could derail his efforts to improve ties with the West at a time when relations with traditional ally Russia are strained.
According to political analyst Artem Shreibman, Lukashenko is running out of options to shore up his rule.
“I don’t see the protest mood declining. The actions of the authorities lead to even greater indignation. The baseline scenario is a large escalation in violence.”
Lukashenko has compared the protesters to criminal gangs, accusing them of fomenting unrest akin to the 2014 Maidan protests that toppled Ukraine’s Moscow-backed president, and of being supported from Russia and Poland. The police said the peaceful protests were cover for attempts to destabilise the country.
Anger over Lukashenko’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has added to grievances over the economy and human rights.
Lukashenko laughed off fears about COVID-19 as a “psychosis” and suggested remedies such as drinking vodka instead of a lockdown.
That attitude frustrated voters such as Maxim Bogdanovich, a 19-year-old Harvard student who says the authorities have not done enough to protect doctors, including his father who works in a hospital.
Civil society stepped in to fill the breach, raising funds to buy personal protective equipment for hospitals or acting as volunteers.
Bogdanovich says people have become less afraid to speak out and he is now comfortable publicly calling Lukashenko a cockroach, a nickname dreamt up by protesters.
“I’m not afraid to say it on camera. Nothing made my heart skip a beat when I said that,” he said. “And a lack of this feeling in the heart is already something that has changed dramatically.”
Willingness to speak out was also in evidence last week, when police began arresting customers outside a gift shop in the capital Minsk that was selling T-shirts with a coded jibe at Lukashenko’s low popularity.
The next day, hundreds more queued up in solidarity.
The crackdown prompted a TV host from state-run media, Dmitry Kokhno, to criticise the police: “There are no criminals in this queue. What are you doing? I am disgusted and revolted to see what is happening.”
Another state TV journalist, Artemis Ahpash, turned on his colleagues in a Facebook post about their coverage: “Whenever from TV / Radio screens you utter a blatant lie about current events, what do you feel when you get home?”
Andrei Tkachev, who became a medical volunteer to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, was in the queue outside the giftshop. He said the authorities had yet to realise that Belarus had changed and that people had lost their fear.
“I’m not afraid that they will detain me,” he said. “I’m afraid of living under a dictatorship for another five years in fear and humiliation.”
Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Frances Kerry