Belarus claims to have foiled ‘Russian plot’ to undermine elections

Minsk ‘arrests’ 33 and claims up to 200 Russian mercenaries in position to sow trouble ahead of polls

Oliver Carroll
Wednesday 29 July 2020 18:43 BST
Belarusian army special troops line up as the president Alexander Lukashenko visits a military base in Maryina Gorka
Belarusian army special troops line up as the president Alexander Lukashenko visits a military base in Maryina Gorka (AP)

Belarusian authorities have claimed to have foiled a plot to “destabilise” the country’s increasingly suspenseful presidential elections next month.

According to BelTA, a state-funded news agency, 33 mercenaries from the Wagner private military group were arrested by KGB officers on Tuesday evening.

Over Wednesday, state television furnished the claims with videos showing the arrest of the men – supposedly caught red-handed with Russian passports, military stripes, bank cards, cash, phones and condoms.

That was not all. Citing secret sources in law enforcement, BelTA said authorities had information that “more than 200 Russian mercenaries” were now in the country and ready to act.

The same sources suggested the Wagner fighters had somehow stayed in a hotel in Minsk on Friday evening, before moving to a sanatorium complex on the edge of town. It was there that sanatorium employees noticed something was not right with the men who claimed to be Russian tourists. They were all dressed in identical “military-style uniform”, and “they weren’t drinking”.

More than half of the 33 men Minsk claimed to have arrested tally with identities contained on open-source databases of mercenaries known to have fought in Ukraine. But there is precious other information about them or the identities of the other 167 fighters supposedly involved in the plot.

Many elements of Belarusian society have reacted to the news with incredulity, noting Mr Lukashenko’s tendency to refer to bizarre security plots ahead of elections. As late as Friday, the president made an elliptical mention of Russian mercenaries – suggesting “soldiers and gangsters … in private military groups” were ready to carry out “tricks” on “behalf of other states”.

TV pictures showed Tuesday’s arrest of the alleged mercenaries (BelTA/screenshot) (Screen shot)

Some have suggested the operation could have been staged with the agreement of Moscow. Another theory posits that the appearance of the men in the Minsk capital was because they were using Belarus as a transport corridor to travel to a third country. Russian air borders remain shut due to the coronavirus.

President for 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko finds himself in an increasingly tight spot ahead of the 9 August election. Economic pressures and criticism over his coronavirus denialism have hit his traditional support hard.

For the first time in two decades, the macho, self-styled dictator faces a serious challenge in the form of unity opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Ms Tikhanovskaya, wife of jailed candidate Sergei Tikhonovski, was until a few weeks ago an unknown housewife. But her no-policy platform promising only honest elections appears to have attracted support far beyond the 7.5 per cent assigned to her by official state polls.

Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and well-connected security expert, dismissed the Belarusian claims as “an invented Lukashenko plot”.

“There is no story. He might be setting the stage to impose martial law but Moscow has nothing to do with this,” Mr Frolov told The Independent. “We are angry he is using us a decoy.”

On Wednesday evening, presidential staff said Mr Lukashenko had called an extraordinary meeting of his Security Council to discuss the developments.

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