MINSK – Belarusian authorities on Monday took control of a Russia-owned commercial bank that was led by a man who is now running to challenge Belarus' authoritarian leader.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term in an Aug. 9 election, has accused Belgazprombank chief executive Viktor Babariko of corruption and called him a “scoundrel.”
Babariko, who stepped down as the bank's chief to take part in the election race, denounced Sunday's searches at the bank and the arrest of its 15 executives on charges of tax evasion and money laundering as part of an intimidation campaign conducted on “political orders.”
Belgazprombank is majority owned by Russia's state-run Gazprom natural gas company and Gazprombank, which is affiliated with it. The raid on the bank highlighted growing frictions between Lukashenko and the Kremllin.
The Russian owners criticized the Belarusian authorities' decision on Monday to introduce temporary administration at the bank, describing the move as a “flagrant violation” of Belarusian law and rules of the Russia-led economic alliance.
Lukashenko has ruled the nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, tolerating no dissent and cracking down on independent media. He has relied on cheap Russian energy and other subsidies to keep Belarus' Soviet-style economy afloat, but his relations with the Kremlin have grown increasingly tense in recent years.
Lukashenko has accused the Kremlin of trying to force Belarus to abandon its post-Soviet independence and vowed to resist the pressure.
The presidential vote comes as the Belarusian economy is facing damage from the coronavirus pandemic. Belarus has been one of the few countries that hasn’t shut its borders and didn't impose any restrictions to stem the outbreak.
As the election approaches, authorities have intensified a crackdown on the opposition, detaining about 100 opposition activists across the country, including popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovski, who was collecting signatures for his wife's nomination as a presidential candidate.
Nikolai Statkevich, a prominent opposition leader who was due to be released Monday after serving a 15-day sentence for taking part in a protest against Lukashenko, was handed another 15-day sentence.
“The economic crisis and a sharp drop in ratings caused by the authorities' actions during the pandemic made Lukashenko nervous and prompted him to show his fist right at the start of the campaign,” said Alexander Klaskovsky, a Minsk-based independent political analyst.