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Belarus' leader faces toughest challenge yet in Sunday vote

After 26 consecutive years in office, the autocratic leader of Belarus is confronting something unfamiliar as he tries to win a sixth term: circumstances beyond his control.

Discontent over a worsening economy and his government's dismissive response to the coronavirus pandemic has helped fuel the country's largest opposition rallies since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Alexander Lukashenko became independent Belarus's first and only elected president, so far.

Rumblings among the ruling elite and a bitter rift with Russia, Belarus's main sponsor and ally, compound the reelection challenge facing the 65-year-old former state farm director on Sunday.

FILE In this file photo taken on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1996, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko emerges from the polling booth after marking his ballot in Belarus' national referendum in Minsk, Belarus. Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (AP PhotoOleg Nikishin, File)

Lukashenko, who once acquired the nickname “Europe's last dictator” in the West for his relentless crackdowns on dissent, has made it clear he won't hesitate to again use the government's authority and, if necessary, force to quash any attempt by his opponents to protest the results of the presidential election.

Election officials already barred the president's two main prospective rivals from what is now a five-person race. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher and the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, has managed to draw strong support, with tens of thousands flocking to her campaign rallies.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Tsikhanouskaya described herself as a “symbol of change”

FILE In this file photo taken on Tuesday, April 2, 1996, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, left, and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko drink vodka after a toast celebrating the signing of an agreement in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (Pool Photo via AP, File)

“It was brewing inside for more than 20 years," Tsikhanouskaya said. "We were afraid all that time and no one dared to say a word. Now people vote for a symbol of change.”

Tsikhanouskaya has crisscrossed the country, tapping public frustration with Lukashenko's swaggering response to the pandemic and the country's stagnating Soviet-style economy.

The president has dismissed the coronavirus as “psychosis” and refused to introduce any restrictions to stem the outbreak, suggesting that Belarusians protect themselves against the disease with a daily shot of vodka, visits to sauna and hard work in the fields.

FILE In this file photo taken on Friday, April 26, 1996, demonstrators throw stones at police officers during an unauthorized rally in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (AP Photo, File)

“They were telling us that the virus doesn't exist and dismissed it as ‘psychosis’ while tens of thousands of Belarusians have got sick," said Diana Golubovich, 54, a lawyer who attended Tsikhanouskaya's rally in Brest, a city on the border with Poland. “Suddenly everyone realized that the social-oriented state that Lukashenko was boasting about doesn't exist.”

Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, has reported more than 68,500 confirmed virus cases and 580 deaths in the pandemic. Critics have accused the authorities of manipulating the figures to downplay the death toll.

Lukashenko announced last month that he had been infected with the virus but had no COVID-19 symptoms and recovered quickly, allegedly thanks to doing sports. He defended his handling of the outbreak, saying that a lockdown would have doomed the nation's weakened economy.

FILE In this file photo taken on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko receives bread and salt during the Dazhynki harvest festival in the town of Gorki, some 270 km (168 miles) east of Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (AP PhotoVasily Fedosenko, Pool)

Belarus still has sustained a severe economic blow after its leading exports customer, Russia, went into a pandemic-induced recession and other foreign markets shrank. Before the coronavirus, the country's state-controlled economy already had been stalled for years, stoking public frustration.

“Lukashenko lacks a plan to modernize the country. He has taken political freedoms away, and now he is depriving people of a chance for economic growth,” said Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the United States who planned to challenge Lukashenko for the presidency but fled to Russia with his children last month to avoid imminent arrest. “That is the main reason behind protests.”

When the presidential campaign began, authorities cracked down on the opposition with a renewed vigor. More than 1,300 protest participants have been detained since May, according to the Viasna human rights center. The campaign chief for one of the candidates race was arrested outside a polling station Friday and sentenced to 10 days in jail for allegedly organizing an unauthorized mass gathering.

FILE In this file photo taken on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, candidate for the presidential elections greets people waving old Belarus flags during a meeting to show her support , in Brest, 326 km (203,7 miles) southwest of Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

Standing outside the Minsk Tractor Plant in Belarus's capital, one worker spoke about his low salary, rising prices and “no glimpse of hope” in Belarus.

“No one trusts the government's promises any more,” said Anton Rubankevich, 46, who makes the equivalent of $480 a month. “If this president stays, we will continue falling into a pit.”

Political observers say the election campaign also exposed divisions among the Belarusian elite as some of its members entered politics for the first time.

FILE In this file photo taken on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, Police officers detain a protester during a rally against the removal of opposition candidates from the presidential elections in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (AP PhotoSergei Grits, File)

Along with former ambassador Tsepkalo, the head of a major Russia-controlled bank contemplated running against Lukashenko. The well-connected potential rival was jailed in May on money laundering and tax evasion charges that he rejected as politically driven.

In what the political opposition and many independent observers regarded as an attempt to shore up the incumbent's sagging public support, Belarusian authorities last week arrested 33 Russian military contractors and charged them with plans to stage “mass riots.”

The arrest of the Russians marked an unprecedented spike in tensions between neighboring Belarus and Russia, which often have acrimonious disputes despite their close ties.

FILE In this file photo taken on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, greets Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Collective Security Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (Tatyana Zenkovich, Pool Photo via AP, File)

When Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1996, Lukashenko aspired to use it as a vehicle to eventually lead a unified state as the successor to Russia's ailing president, Boris Yeltsin. The tables turned after Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000; the Belarusian leader began resisting what he saw as a Kremlin push for control over Belarus.

Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political expert based in Minsk, said he thinks the Kremlin hopes the stormy election campaign in Belarus will help erode Lukashenko's grip on power and make him more receptive to a closer integration of the two countries.

“Moscow is interested not in Lukashenko's ouster, but his maximal weakening so that he comes out of that campaign with undermined legitimacy, spoiled relations with the West and the economy in a poor shape,” Klaskovsky said. “A weakened and emaciated Lukashenko would be a gift for Moscow."

FILE - In this Sunday, April 19, 2020, file photo, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, right, with his son Nikolai, attends the Orthodox Easter service at a church in the village of Malye Lyady outskirts Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (Nikolai PetrovPool Photo via AP, File)

Klaskovsky nevertheless expects election officials to declare Lukashenko the winner by landslide.

“It will be about 80% of the vote for Lukashenko, so that his entourage doesn't think that the leader has grown weaker,” he predicted. “The government has enough resources and brute force to keep the power and suppress protests, but it lacks the answer to the main question about the path of Belarus' development. Lukashenko will undoubtedly win, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory.”

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.

FILE In this file pool photo taken on Saturday, April 4, 2020, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko takes part in a hockey match during Republican amateur competitions in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (Andrei PokumeikoBelTA Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE In this file photo taken on Tuesday, July 3, 2018, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, center, attends a military parade marking Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (Sergei GaponPool Photo via AP, File)

In this photo taken on Tuesday, May 26, 2020, Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and founder of a successful hi-tech park, speaks to the media in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. Mounting public discontent over the worsening economy and his government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the largest opposition rallies since the Soviet collapse. (AP PhotoSergei Grits, File)

FILE In this file photo taken from video released by Belarusian KGB, State TV and Radio Company of Belarus on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, Belarusian KGB officers detain Russian men in a sanitarium outside in Minsk, Belarus. In what the opposition and many independent observers saw as Lukashenko's attempt to shore up sagging public support, Belarusian authorities arrested 33 Russian military contractors and charged them with plans to stage "mass riots. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. (Belarusian KGB, State TV and Radio Company of Belarus via AP, File)

FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, file photo Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks to the media at a polling station after voting during the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a perfect storm as he seeks a sixth term in the election held Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 after 26 years in office. (AP PhotoSergei Grits, File)