Belarusian law enforcement claims that members of the Russian Wagner PMC are in Belarus to disrupt the upcoming Belarusian presidential elections on 8 August, following an early morning raid on a resort near Minsk on 29 July. The raid resulted in the arrest of 32 Russian men alleged to be Wagner contractors, and another Russian man suspected of being a Wagner contractor was arrested in Gomel Oblast.
Belarusian authorities claim to have received information that over 200 “militants” have arrived in the country prior to the elections with the goal of causing “mass riots” to disrupt the elections. The Investigative Committee of Belarus alleges that Belarusian blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky is connected to the arrival of the Wagner contractors, stating that they were opening cases against him for “suspicion of preparations for mass riots” and other charges. Tikhanovsky was running for President, but his bid was blocked after his arrest in May for allegedly assaulting a police officer. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is now running in his place, and denied claims that she or her husband had any connections to the alleged plot in an interview with Reuters.
The state-run Belta press service has published the names of the alleged contractors, and it is claimed that 14 of them have fought in the War in Donbass, with some of them possessing Ukrainian citizenship. Minsk has since given a list of those with Ukrainian citizenship to Kiev, and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) is now seeking extradition of them to Ukraine over their role in the War in Donbass. Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta has published documents that confirm the identities of at least 15 of the arrested men as Wagner contractors, with at least seven of them having fought in Syria, and another three having fought in Ukraine. The newspaper reports that one of the detained, Andrey Bakunovich is mentioned in an expert report on the situation in Libya presented to the UN Security Council, having been identified as one of 122 known Wagner contractors operating in Libya.
The Russian government has denied Minsk’s accusations, describing them as “odious”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Moscow wanted an exhaustive explanation for the arrests, saying “we don’t have information about any illegal activity carried out by them”. Russian ambassador to Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev claimed that the arrested men had had to extend their stopover in Belarus after missing a flight to Istanbul en route to an undisclosed third country, and had no involvement with the internal affairs of Belarus. The Russian foreign ministry is now demanding that its diplomats be given access to the arrested men.
The allegations of a plot come as massive street protests against current President Alexander Lukashenko continue in the run-up to the elections. While Lukashenko is expected to win elections that have not been deemed free and fair since 1995, the increased repression of opposition candidates, activists, journalists and bloggers alike makes it clear that he views the so-called “Slipper Revolution” (or “Anti-Cockroach Revolution”) as the greatest threat yet to his 26 year rule of Belarus. Discontent with his rule has steadily grown due to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belarus, as well a slowing economy and human rights concerns.