Five days before the country’s most contested presidential election in more than two decades, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko lashed out at the country’s opposition movement, accusing them of trying to organise violent protests.
The main rivals of Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, were disqualified or jailed months before the vote.
However, the wife of a jailed blogger - who was not allowed to run - has recently emerged as a surprise opposition leader, attracting massive anti-government rallies across the country not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.
No independent pollsters are allowed to operate in Belarus but online surveys and an unprecedented turnout for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s rallies point to a growing discontent with Mr Lukashenko, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis and a declining economy.
Mr Lukashenko, in what appeared to be a desperate call on the Belarusian establishment and law enforcement to rally around him, lashed out at the opposition on Tuesday and accused them of plotting to plunge the country into chaos.
“There is no open warfare, no shooting so far… but an attempt to organise a massacre in the centre of Minsk is already obvious,” he said in a rare address to the nation, accusing his unnamed opponents of using “the latest technology” to sow discord.
The 65-year old former collective farm boss also claimed that Mrs Tikhanovskaya - along with two other women leading the opposition campaign - were co-opted by unnamed foreign powers.
“Those puppet masters are bound to fail,” a visibly flustered Mr Lukashenko told parliament. “It’s our people who are going to suffer in the end.”
Valery Tsepkalo, a disqualified candidate who fled the country last month after a criminal inquiry against him was announced, told the Telegraph on Tuesday that Mr Lukashenko’s speech shows that “he is nervous and that he can see that he no longer has any popular support.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Lukashenko published his election manifesto, promising to double the country’s average pay in five year, a problematic promise for the country where disposable income has been on the way down for several years now.
Earlier in his speech he described Belarus, which borders Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, as a safe haven in a turbulent world: “Look what’s happening in rich countries, look how things blew over in America!”
While stopping short of pointing the finger at the Kremlin, President Lukashenko said that 33 Russian men arrested in Belarus last week on suspicion of fomenting unrest have confessed.
Moscow insisted that the alleged mercenaries are private security guards who were in Belarus in transit.
Mr Lukashenko said on Tuesday that he has got intelligence about other militants who infiltrated the country’s south but did not provide any detail.
Mr Lukashenko, who told parliament and senior officials on Tuesday that they should vote for him because they “know him”, conceded that voters were free to choose at the polls but warned against what now appears to be inevitable opposition protests.
Opposition candidates were allowed to campaign across the country but the government’s recent refusal to give them a place to rally in the capital Minsk would likely lead to unsanctioned protests which are banned in Belarus.
“If you break the law, we will react immediately and push back in the harshest way,” President Lukashenko said.
Mr Lukashenko and his entourage were slapped with Western sanctions for a brutal crackdown following the 2010 presidential election. Belarus, however, saw a certain rapprochement with the West in recent years as Mr Lukashenko released some of the political prisoners and refused to recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Also on Tuesday, the Belarusian Defence Ministry confirmed earlier reports of a military build-up on the border with Russia, saying that the country was gearing up for “planned military drills” to start two days after the Sunday election.
Local media in Russia’s north-western Pskov region have quoted multiple eyewitness reports of military trucks and APCs driving on the main highway to the Russian border.