By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) - The leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, on Friday accused his political rival Viktor Babariko of corruption but denied trying to block Babariko from standing against him in the presidential election in August.
Lukashenko has ruled the eastern European country with an iron fist since 1994 but faces the biggest challenge to his authority in years, with thousands of people taking to the streets recently to support opposition candidates.
Babariko is the former head of the local unit of Russia's Gazprombank, whose offices were raided on Thursday in a tax evasion case.
Babariko said the raid was designed to put political pressure on him. Lukashenko denied that the criminal case was related to the election, but he said Babariko could not wash his hands of the allegations and blame other officials at the bank.
"What struck me most is that this scoundrel, I cannot call him otherwise, says: 'I have nothing to do with this. They are the ones to blame'," Lukashenko was cited by the state news agency BelTA as saying. "Look, they were not only his deputies. They are one gang."
Belgazprombank said on Thursday that it was continuing normal operations and that its financial stability had not been affected. Gazprombank said it did not manage the operations of Belgazprombank and was not contacted by the Belarus authorities.
Lukashenko said 15 people had been detained in the case against Belgazprombank.
Public frustration with Lukashenko's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and grievances about the economy and human rights have reinvigorated opposition to his rule.
Analysts see Babariko as his most serious rival.
Lukashenko said he welcomed Babariko running in the election, because it put scrutiny on what he said was Babariko's track record of corruption, including amassing property and paying bribes. Babariko denies the allegations.
"And I want him to get to the polls," Lukashenko said. "But we will not make him a prisoner of conscience."
(Editing by Matthias Williams)