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Belarus presidential election: Will the lights go out on Lukashenko in 2020?

No-one can say the line-up for the presidential election in Belarus scheduled for August 9 lacks var..

No-one can say the line-up for the presidential election in Belarus scheduled for August 9 lacks variety.

Several strong candidates from among the Minsk political establishment have their sights set on ousting — peacefully — the countrys “perennial” president Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking his sixth term in office.

“This time some very unexpected candidates, who could give Lukashenko a real fight, have popped up. They have learnt a lesson from the previous elections, in which some presidential hopefuls focused too much on street protests,” Alyaksandr Klaskouski, a Belarusian political analyst and media expert, told Euronews.

“Now we have at least two candidates who can throw down the gauntlet to Lukashenko differently but appealingly — through connecting with Belarusian peoples hearts and minds for a new chapter in Belarusian history. Many people have already pinned their hopes on them.”

Of 55 groups that initially submitted documents to enter the race, 15 were given a green light to move forward by collecting 100,000 votes in support of their candidates, a mandatory prerequisite in the election.

The deadline for this is June 19, when the Central Election Commission will rule on the legitimacy of the collected votes and decide who to put on the ballot. Candidates will then be nominated between June 20 and July 4.

Maxim Guchek/BelTA Pool Photo via AP
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, right, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pose for photo during their meeting in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, June 5, 2020.Maxim Guchek/BelTA Pool Photo via AP

A sea of candidates

Among the hotchpotch of candidates are relatively seasoned politicians: Oleg Gaidukevich, leader of the Liberal-Democratic party (LDP), Yuri Gubarevich, leader of the movement “Za svobodu” (“For Freedom”), Andrei Dmitrijev, co-chairman of the movement “Govori pravdu” (“Speak the truth”), and Olga Kovalkova, co-founder of the party of Belarusian Christian Democracy.

But the list is also spiced up with several outsiders, like pensioner Vladimir Nepomniashchikh or Aleksandr Tabolich — a tattoo artist and a member of a Minsk-based band — who are both arguably seeking the limelight primarily for non-political reasons.

Importantly, the list also includes two heavyweights who have captured the attention of both the public and analysts alike: Viktor Babariko, ex-chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, and Valery Tsepkalo, former Belarusian ambassador to the United States, and the ex-head of High Technologies Park in Minsk.

“These two candidates represent the Belarusian establishment. They know very well how the system works and they have met the president (Lukashenko) on numerous occasions. The latter in fact was his aide at some point. They have resources for the campaign and street unrest is not part of their game. This is what sets the election apart from the previous elections,” stresses Alyaksandr Klaskouski.

AP Photo/Sergei Grits
People give their signatures in support for potential presidential candidates in the upcoming presidential elections in Minsk, Sunday, May 31, 2020.AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Anatolij Pankovskij, a Belarusian political analyst, told Euronews that the participation of “political novices” and “fat cats” like Babariko and Tsepkalo makes the campaign different and very interesting.

“The situation we now see appearing is unprecedented. It remains to be seen if the two will be cleared by the electoral authority for the election campaign,” he says.

However Genadih Sharipkin, a political observer from Minsk, notes that the election will be played out in “extraordinary” circumstances: conducted against the background of a collapsed economy and the COVID-19 crisis that has claimed many lives, partly due to the reckless behaviour of President Lukashenko.

Although Belarus has had more than 52,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 298 deaths (as of June 12) according to the Johns Hopkins University, no lockdown has been imposed.

“Id pay attention to the time chosen for the election — on August 9, in the midst of summer holidays for many, which are usually spent in gardens and summer cottages. It seems the leaders of the country are not particularly worried about that. What they are really worried about is how to make the whole campaign quick, quiet and boring for everyone,” Sharipkin explained to Euronews.

Valeria Kostyugova of “Nashe mnenije” (Our opinion), a platform of independent Belarusian political experts, told Euronews that the election is marked by particularly high “political exuberance”.

“We see nominations backed by huge support. Signatures are being collected swiftly and efficiently, employing social media and social networks,” Kostyugova said.

Opposition rallies bring wave of arrests

For many years, the Belarusian opposition was largely represented by Mikola (Nikolai) Statkevich, an intrepid senior figure in the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Peoples Assembly) and a contender in the 2010 presidential election. But his affinity with vociferous street protests has landed him in jail on numerous occasions. Sentenced in 2011 to six years, he was pardoned by Lukashenko before he fully served the term, but was stripped of the right to take part in the countrys elections where an oath is required.

On June 1 Statkevich was jailed for 15 days after taking part in anti-Lukashenko rallies. More than 100 opposition activists were arrested in a government crackdown in May, according to Human Rights Watch and Belarusian campaign group Viasna.

It came amid protests which saw hundreds of people in Minsk clamour against Lukashenko’s rule, in the largest opposition demonstrations of the year.

None of the analysts approached for the article considered Statkevich an important figure any more. They say that over the years of Lukashenko’s rule, the traditional opposition has been pushed to the edges of Belarussian politics.

“The political spectrum representing itself as the opposition is patchy, but weak, unable to speak with a single voice and languishing in the margins. This is where Lukashenko wants them to be. Not only he, but the public too sees them as whining losers,” Klaskouski points out.

Nikolai Petrov/Pool Photo via AP, File
Opposition activist Nikolai Statkevich speaks to people gathered to sign up and support potential presidential candidates in Minsk, Sunday, May 24, 2020.Nikolai Petrov/Pool Photo via AP, File

Yet in contrast, Babariko and Tsepkalo have conjured up images of themselves as successful, smart visionaries who have nothing to do with the traditional opposition.

“It would be hard to question their accomplishments even for Lukashenko. Their achiever status compels the president to scratch his head: how to deal with them? Lukashenko is used to clamping down on bellicose street protestors, but these two make it a completely different story,” Klaskouski maintains.

However, the political analyst also claims that their moderate, polite, incombustible rhetoric could also prove to be their Achilles heel.

“In any revolution, the power of the street always plays big. Without it, they are unlikely to secure wide support from all the political parties and the public alike,” Klaskouski said.

Both standout potential candidates have so far shunned making clear statements on Belarus geopolitical future. They are clearly not in favour of closer integration with Europe, and both understand that Russia is hugely important to Belarus. In fact, some have already accused Babariko of “selling” Belarus to Russia, which he vehemently denies.

Babariko collected more than 50,000 signatures in his support in just three days. If as expected this pace is kept up, analysts believe the candidate will notch up way more signatures than are required.

After 20 years as chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, Babariko is carrying over into the election campaign the low profile he has maintained both in his private life and professional career. He has already earned the nickname the “candidate of hope”.

“In terms of collecting signatures, he has broken all the previous records. As much as Lukashenko and the Central Election Commission — orchestrated by the president’s people — would like to cast a shadow on all the votes in his favour, the number may be just too big to ignore,” Klaskouski emphasises.

Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko play ice hockey at Rosa Khutor near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, February 7, 2020.Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP

The president weighs his options

As for the president’s own campaign, Alexander Lukashenko supposedly collected 200,000 votes in his support in just four days.

“I just do not believe it. This must be a fabrication,” says analyst Anatolij Pankovskij.

Klaskouski believes that Lukashenko may be itching to crack the whip against his new political foes, as he did many times before — but that this time, clamping down on opponents who are not mired in scandals and politics could backfire against the president.

“Lukashenko, who zealously cherishes his meticulously burnished macho image, would be dealt a political blow if he, the Belarusian-style embodiment of manhood, chose to discredit or use force against his opponents and did not allow their names to appear on the ballot,” he says.

The prospect of supporters of Babariko and Tsepkalo pouring into the streets if Minsk officials refuse to register them for the election cannot be ruled out either, although both potential candidates have reiterated they are against any street protests.

“For example, Babariko repeats that a massive number of signatures collected for his candidacy is the best deterrence against Lukashenkos evil intents,” Klaskouski said. “But Lukashenko faces a big headache: to play the game — new for him — or axe the annoying candidates at some point,” Klaskouski said.

Sergei GAPON / AFP
A protester holds a portrait of Belarus’ President Lukashenko reading “Stop the criminal man”, as she collects signatures backing alternative candidates, Minsk, June 7, 2020.Sergei GAPON / AFP

When asked about potential rival candidates in the presidential race, Lukashenko sounds irked and, on one occasion, compared them with “beetles” who turn up to feed on the fodder prepared by others.

Talking to workers at the tractor factory MTZ last week, Lukashenko noted that he knows little about the people seeking nomination.

“Except for my former aide (Tsepkalo). To tell the truth, he is a sly one. He doesn’t say why the president fired him. Feel free to ask him that. He may give you an honest answer. He would not want to run for the presidency then. But he won’t speak honestly. If we have to, we will tell but we don’t want to indulge in smear campaigns,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying.

The current support for the Belarusian leader is believed to be low. The last credible poll conducted by a Vilnius-based pollster in 2016 showed it hovering around 30 percent. The deepening of poverty, combined with a slew of social issues and the distrust in the president for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, puts him in a precarious situation prior to the election.

“Provided the other two prominent candidates are allowed to run,” the analysts conclude. But Valeria Kostyugova believes that although there will be much ruckus, Lukashenko will prevail.

“He has the resources and the experience,” she said.

The president has been in power since 1994 — Belarus did away with presidential term limits in 2004 — and opposition activists have accused him of suppressing anti-government voices and independent news media over a quarter of a century.

Despite the focus on the two main rival candidates, some other contenders should not be ignored. Alyaksandr Klaskouski cites the name of Sergei Tikhanovski, a popular video blogger who boasts over 180,000 online subscribers and has been dubbed ‘Belarus mini Zelensky’, after Ukraine’s comedian-turned-politician who was elected the country’s president in 2019.

Tikhanovski was detained by the authorities in May. On June 9 the state Investigative Committee said he faces up to three years in prison on charges of violation of public order and assaulting a police officer during a protest against Lukashenko’s re-election bid.

“Due to arrest, he was unable to submit his documents on time to the Central Election Commission. So his wife Svetlana registered herself for the race and, having employed the tools of social media, she is now exhorting Belarussians to get rid of Lukashenko. The operation is mimicking the presidential campaign run by the current Ukrainian President (Volodymyr) Zelensky,” Klaskouski said.

Like Zelensky, the blogger speaks in plain language with no plum in his mouth. Tikhanovski castigates the establishment, but unlike the successful Ukrainian campaigner, he has few resources and the level of public attention is no match.

AP Photo/Sergei Grits
Blogger Sergei Tikhanovski speaks to people gathered to sign up and support potential presidential candidates, Minsk, Belarus, May 24, 2020.AP Photo/Sergei Grits

A Belarusian Maidan?

The analysts agree that the blogger, Babariko, Tsepkalo and perhaps Dmitrijev, of “Speak the truth!” stand the best chances of clearing the 100,000-signature hurdle.

As Belarus is currently forming commissions of electoral districts, the authorities are including mostly Lukashenko-devotees — like teachers, farmers (Lukashenko is a former director of a kolkhoz, or collective farm) — not representative of the candidates, Klaskouski notes.

“This can be very important when it comes to counting ballots,” he emphasises.

Belarus’ government and parliament have refused to postpone the elections — scheduled for August 9 — amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

On June 3, Lukashenko dismissed his government and replaced his prime minister in a move seen by some analysts as a reflection of official anxiety.

But the bottom-line question is this: to what extent will the election be rigged? At least one political observer believes that cannot be ruled out.

“The presidential campaign is set to be particularly ferocious and unpredictable this time. The president has already been derided by some of the candidates and is weighing his options. As everything at the end of the day boils down to the survival of the regime and the president himself, Lukashenko will not be too pernickety or hesitant, heeding warnings from the West,” Genadih Sharipkin told Euronews.

In some people’s minds are the street protests in Kyiv that led to the Ukrainian revolution of 2014.

But will a second Maidan brew up in Minsk?

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Aliku Ogorchukwu: Wife of Nigerian killed in Italy demands justice

The wife of a Nigerian street trader who was killed in Italy has told the BBC she is seeking justice following his “painful death”.

Aliku Ogorchukwu, 39, was reportedly selling handkerchiefs in the seaside town of Civitanova Marche on Friday when he was chased and beaten to death.

A 32-year-old Italian has been arrested on suspicion of murder and robbery.

A video circulating online shows a man on top of Ogorchukwu, punching him with his bare hands.

None of those who witnessed the broad daylight attack appeared to intervene.

“This is a form of wickedness I don’t know,” Ogorchukwu’s wife, Charity Oriachi, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa.

Ms Oriachi said she had received help in coming to terms with her husband’s death but was tired of “talk”. Now, she was only interested in justice, she insisted.

Her family had lived in Italy for a long time, she said, stressing that her husband had never sought any trouble.

The killing has sparked outrage in the local community, including Nigerians, who took to the streets over the weekend and are planning another demonstration soon.

The Nigerian government has asked Italian authorities to quickly “bring the perpetrator of the heinous act” to justice.

Suspect not released

The suspect – a white man named as Filippo Claudio Giuseppe Ferlazzo – has been ordered to remain in jail as the investigation continues.

His defence lawyer told the media the suspect had said he was sorry and that there was “no racial element” involved.

A police investigator said Ogorchukwu was attacked after the trader’s “insistent” requests to the suspect and his partner for spare change.

The partner, identified as Elena D, told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Ogorchukwu had touched her arm, but that did not bother her.

Ms Oriachi now wants to see the suspect “face to face”, to understand why he killed her husband, the family’s lawyer told the Associated Press.

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Ukrainian widow confronts Russian soldier accused of killing her husband

In the very first days of this invasion a 62-year-old unarmed civilian was shot dead on a village street outside his Ukrainian home. His name was Oleksandr Shelipov.

Three months later and the captured Russian soldier accused of killing him is in Kyiv being tried for a war crime.

Standing up in court to confront the 21-year-old defendant on Thursday was Kateryna Shelipova, the widow of the man killed.

Did he repent his crime, she asked?

The Russian tank commander, Vadim Shishimarin, replied that he admitted his guilt and asked for her forgiveness. “But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me,” he added.

Kateryna Shelipova hadn’t finished. “Tell me please, why did you [Russians] come here? To protect us?” she asked, citing Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.

“Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?”

The soldier had no answer to that.

This landmark trial marks the first time a Russian serviceman has been put on the stand for war crimes since the invasion of Ukraine was launched in February.

And perhaps such raw encounters are what such trials are about, at least in part. Forcing a soldier – who ignored all the rules of war – to face up to exactly what he has done and the suffering he has caused.

Sgt Shishimarin has pleaded guilty and Ukrainian prosecutors are asking for him to be sentenced to life imprisonment.

On Wednesday, Ms Shelipova told me she actually felt sorry for the soldier, but she could not forgive him for this crime.

She heard the shots that killed her husband, then saw Sgt Shishimarin through her gate – holding his weapon.

Five minutes later she says she saw her husband’s body: “He was dead with a shot in his head. I started screaming very loudly.”

“The loss of my husband is everything for me,” Ms Shelipova said, adding: “He was my protector.”

‘It killed him’

Recalling the events of 28 February, Vadim Shishimarin said he and a small group of other Russian soldiers had become separated from their unit and hijacked a car in order to return to it.

“As we were driving, we saw a man. He was talking on the phone,” the defendant said.

He claimed that he hadn’t wanted to fire the fatal shots, that he was following orders – threatened by another soldier if he refused to do as he was told.

“He said I would be putting us in danger if I didn’t. I shot him at short range. It killed him,” the 21-year-old tank commander told the court.

Interestingly, his defence lawyer – appointed by the state – told me that no Russian official has been in touch with him, including from its defence ministry.

There is no Russian embassy in Kyiv these days, so no contact from there either.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman yesterday told the BBC that the Kremlin has “no information” about this case.

All in all, it feels rather like the young soldier has been abandoned to his fate by the commanders who sent him to war and continue to deny that their forces commit crimes here.

We also heard from a second Russian soldier who witnessed the killing in February and later surrendered to Ukrainian forces.

Ivan Maltysev, another slight and young-looking 21-year-old, told the court how the Russian soldiers spotted Oleksandr Shelipov while they were driving the stolen car.

Mr Maltysev claimed that Vadim Shishimarin was then ordered to shoot the victim because he was on the phone.

“Vadim didn’t do it. So the soldier, whose name I don’t know, turned round in the car and shouted that Vadim had to carry out the order, or we would be informed on.

“At this point, we were almost alongside the civilian and, under pressure, Vadim fired. He fired three or four rounds.”

Ukraine has so far identified more than 11,000 possible war crimes committed by Russia.

Moscow has denied its troops have targeted civilians, but investigators have been collecting evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

This trial is Ukraine’s chance to prove, beyond doubt, that a Russian soldier killed a civilian with no regard for the rules of war.

Its prosecutors know they are in the spotlight, proceeding so quickly, and in the middle of a war.

That is why they are keen to be as transparent and thorough as possible – so that this is not seen as a show trial, but part of a vital quest for justice.

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Stop matching lone female Ukraine refugees with single men, UK told

The UN refugee agency has called on the UK government to intervene to stop single British men from being matched up with lone Ukrainian women seeking refuge from war because of fears of sexual exploitation.

Following claims that predatory men are using the Homes for Ukraine scheme to target the vulnerable, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) told the Guardian “a more appropriate matching process” could be put in place to ensure women and women with children are matched with families or couples.

The suggestion from the global refugee agency follows reports that Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and sometimes accompanied by children, are at risk in the UK of sexual exploitation.

Under the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, British hosts must link up with Ukrainian refugees themselves, leaving tens of thousands of people to resort to unregulated social media groups to connect.

A government-backed matching service run by the charity Reset offers to match UK hosts with refugees but has been operating for just over a week. Those who want to move to the UK must have a sponsor before applying for a visa.

In a statement, the UNHCR said there was a need for adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation, as well as adequate support for sponsors. “[The] UNHCR believes that a more appropriate matching process could be put in place by ensuring that women and women with children are matched with families or couples, rather than with single men.

“Matching done without the appropriate oversight may lead to increasing the risks women may face, in addition to the trauma of displacement, family separation and violence already experienced,” a spokesperson said.

Leading refugee charities raised their concerns about the Homes for Ukraine scheme in a letter to Michael Gove, the minister in charge of the scheme. Louise Calvey, the head of safeguarding at the charity Refugee Action, told the Observer it was at risk of being a “Tinder for sex traffickers”.

One 32-year-old woman from Bakhmut, Ukraine, who has been searching for an appropriate person to match in the UK, wrote that she had received suggestive messages from men on Facebook’s Messenger app. “I was approached by one older guy from London who said that I would have to share a bedroom with him, and was asked if I was OK with that,” she said in an email seen by the Guardian.

The Sunday Times reported this week that a journalist posing as a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman from Kyiv found that within minutes of posting a message on the largest Facebook group for UK hosts she was inundated with inappropriate messages.

Some men lied about having several bedrooms in their one-bed homes while another proposed sharing a bed, writing: “I have a large bed. We could sleep together.” Another sent a voice note that said: “I am ready to help you and maybe you can help me also.”

In its statement, the UNHCR also raised concerns about the repercussions should the original UK host prove a potential threat to the safety of the refugee, and the six-month minimum duration on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

“UNHCR believes that appropriate training and information are needed to ensure that hosts make an informed decision when applying to become sponsors. Housing a stranger in an extra bedroom for an extended period is not, for some people, sustainable,” the spokesperson said.

There is growing public anger over the length of time that Ukrainians are being forced to wait before being given visas from the Home Office amid the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, apologised on Friday for the time it had taken for Ukrainian refugees to arrive in the UK under two visa schemes, after figures showed only 12,000 had so far reached Britain.

Reports on Tuesday claimed Gove had been accused of bullying Home Office officials by Patel’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft.

Asked to respond to the UNHCR’s request for an intervention on sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women, a government spokesperson said: “Attempts to exploit vulnerable people are truly despicable – this is why we have designed our Homes for Ukraine scheme to have specific safeguards in place, including robust security and background checks on all sponsors, both by the Home Office and local authorities.

“Councils must make at least one in-person visit to a sponsors property and following guests arrival, they have a duty to ensure the guest is safe and well.

“We have also partnered with the charity Reset Communities and Refugees to fund and provide a matching service for sponsors and refugees to ensure that matches made are suitable, safe and successful. This service will vet eligibility, assess needs, and provide training for sponsors to ensure they

ensure they can support the people they host.”

Asked to confirm or deny whether there had been a complaint that Gove had bullied staff, the spokesperson added: “Humanitarian schemes set up in record time by the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities working closely together are helping thousands of Ukrainians find safety in the UK.”


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