Pompeo Turns Screw on 'Europe's Last Dictator' Amid Russia Tensions, Unrest

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, long known as "Europe's last dictator," to allow free and fair elections in the country he has led since 1994.

Pompeo's call for open democracy came on Belarus's independence day and as Lukashenko is locked in a spat with neighbor and longtime ally Russian President Vladimir Putin over the presidential election scheduled for August. Lukashenko has accused Putin of undermining his re-election effort and helping his only realistic rival.

Pompeo's Thursday statement said President Donald Trump's administration "strongly supports the continued aspirations of the Belarusian people for democratic principles including universal freedoms, civil liberties, and the rule of law."

"We urge the government of Belarus to do everything in its power to ensure the upcoming elections are free and fair," Pompeo said. "This includes the right of a diverse range of candidates to participate in the campaign, the right of citizens to assemble peacefully and speak freely, and open and fair ballot counting."

Lukashenko, 65, has retained power for almost three decades, having taken control of Belarus soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country holds presidential elections but they are heavily rigged in favor of the incumbent.

Voters will head to the polls again in August, with Lukashenko planning to secure a sixth presidential term. But this contest could be the toughest he has faced in recent memory, as popular unrest rises over his bungling of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, poor economic conditions and systemic human rights abuses.

Lukashenko also says he is facing pressure from Putin, accusing the Kremlin—and Poland in the west—of meddling in the election to discredit him.

"It's clear that the puppeteers are behind them," he said of his opponents last week, Reuters reported. "They are on the one side and the other side. They live in Poland and are supplied from Russia. We will talk about this with President Putin in the near future at a meeting."

Lukashenko's main challenger is former banker Viktor Babariko, 56. Babariko once headed Belgazprombank, a Belarusian branch of Gazprombank which is Russia's third largest bank. Lukashenko has alleged that the bank is financing Babariko's run for office, and Belarusian authorities have opened an investigation into the organization.

A fresh round of anti-government protests erupted when Babariko was arrested in June. His campaign team said Lukashenko's allegations were "an absurdity." Another 360 people were also arrested in a subsequent crackdown on Lukashenko critics, human rights activists said.

Russia has dismissed any suggestion it is undermining Lukashenko or supporting his opponent. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said last week, "Russia has never, is not and does not intend to interfere in election processes, particularly in the ones of our Belarusian ally."

Historically-close relations between Minsk and Moscow had been deteriorating before Putin's alleged election meddling, after Russia reduced loans and subsidies that have helped Lukashenko retain power.

In response, the president has threatened to pull out of an integration project designed to bring the two countries into closer alignment, Reuters reported. Lukashenko has previously accused Moscow of trying to force Belarus into unifying with its larger neighbor and of "hysterics" over his efforts to improve ties with the West.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus, Russia, Pompeo, Putin, election
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko gives a speech during a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Minsk, Belarus, on May 9, 2020. SERGEI GAPON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty