Belarus will hold presidential elections in October, and President Alexander Lukashenko will face Tatiana Karatkevich, the first-ever female candidate. That is, of course, unless the all-powerful ruler changes his mind.
MINSK — Since Belarus gained independence in 1991, only one woman had ever flirted with presidential aspirations, and even then she didn't make it past the signature-gathering stage.
Tatiana Karatkevich instead is determined to go farther. "First and foremost, what we want to achieve is for the state to respect the opinions of the people," she says. "To ensure that the authorities do not divide us into good and bad, into enemies, into the capable and the incapable."
The 38-year-old identifies herself as a social democrat after working for many years in the Tell the Truth movement founded by Belarusian poet Vladimir Neklyayev, who was one of 10 candidates to run against Alexander Lukashenko in the 2010 last presidential race, but was subsequently placed under house arrest.
Her proposals are ambitious: She wants to introduce directly elected mayors and says she will fight to institute a two-term limit on the presidency. Also, with 11 years of experience in the education sector, she is acutely aware of its shortcomings and hopes to improve education and training.
She also wants to shift away from posting young graduates to jobs within inefficient state-owned enterprises, where they only earn $200 a month. Needless to say, she has both students and teachers on her side.
Karatkevich says she still recognizes that her country's health care system has achieved some major successes: Transplants are among the best in eastern Europe and have helped develop expertise in other complex operations, boosting medical tourism. But the prevention of common diseases is problematic, and she says the health ministry's move to ban doctors from prescribing foreign medicine is dangerous. "People have to order their medicines abroad and face uncertainty over whether they can cope with their illness," she says.
Foreign policy is a critical test for any presidential candidate, and the dramatic Russian incursion into Ukraine has shaken Belarusian society to the core. Contrary to the Kremlin's position, Karatkevich believes Crimea should remain Ukrainian. "We stand for Ukraine's territorial integrity," she says.
European Union membership for Belarus is unlikely, but she does want closer ties with the Union — including partnerships to help improve education and health care and the opportunity for EU citizens to enter Belarus without a visa.
One of Karatkevich's main ideas is to strengthen the status of Belarus as a peaceful, neutral country.
There are so far no foreign military bases in Belarus, and authorities are in no rush to make a decision about Russia's proposal for Belarus to host a fully functioning military base. "What we want is to strive toward a neutral status so as to ensure in the future that there will be no military bases and that our children will not have to fight overseas," she says.
But the Russian economic crisis next door is a harsh reality for many in Belarus, which produces most of Russia's heavy machinery. Some companies have shortened hours for workers to cut costs, and there was even an employee strike last month at the Molodechno factory — something that was previously unthinkable in Belarus.
Karatkevich believes the time has come for the country to modernize. That would mean cutting state subsidies and identifying additional growth opportunities. Investors have fled the country because they face punishment for being involved in civic or political activities. "This must change," she says.
There are questions about whether she would support a "lustration" process, like there was in Ukraine. "Lukashenko will remain the first president," she says. "That will not be wiped from the history books. He will retire and what he does after that is for him to decide." She adds that civil servants currently serving under him will be given the option to work under her administration.
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Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 — Photo: Kremlin
What distinguishes Karatkevich from the opposition candidates of previous campaigns is that she has no intention of calling on her supporters to stage mass protests the night after the vote. "This idea is not popular," she says. "People do not trust the current opposition politicians. People are afraid."
She faces a daunting task. Post-election protests in December 2010 saw 50,000 people take to the streets following results that gave Lukashenko nearly 80% support in what international observers called a "flawed" ballot. Some 700 people were arrested, dozens were prosecuted and many others whose mobile phones had been tracked were intimidated by the authorities, who accused the opposition of trying to storm parliament.
One candidate, Ales Michalevic, fled abroad after his release on bail while another, Andrei Sannikov, received political asylum in the Czech Republic. Belarusian Social Democratic Party head Mikola Statkevich is still in prison, a sticking point for the EU and Washington, which have both called for his release.
But Karatkevich hopes that, this time, the election and its aftermath will be different. "The authorities will accuse us of wanting another Maidan," she says. "We are saying that we want peaceful change."