A largely unknown figure until recently, candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya is now challenging to end the 26-year presidency of Alexander Lukashenko.
Until a few months ago, she was just a simple housewife. An anonymous mother, modest and self-effacing, living in the shadow of a husband who had become a star on social media, a talkative and politicized man, ready to fight the power.
But on the evening of July 26, in Gomel, a small town in Belarus, it was she, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who was greeted by a crowd of several thousand people. All around, supporters swayed their illuminated telephones to the tune of L'Estaca, the Catalan song that Spaniards sang to free themselves from Franco. It's the same song that the Poles of Solidarnosc used to hum before the fall of the communist regime.
That night, the 37-year-old Tsikhanovskaya solidified her position as the opponent determined to end the reign of Alexander Lukashenko, the first and only president of Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two face off this coming Sunday, Aug. 9, in the country's high-stakes presidential election. "I am no longer afraid," she told her audience.
In the capital Minsk, the same scene is repeated, captivating politicians who believe they are witnessing the birth of a "women's revolution." It's a revolution of women because Svetlana is not alone. At her side are Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova. All three speak in the absence of their male counterparts.
Thinking that like him, voters would despise a woman who cannot even hold a gun, Lukashenko allowed Tsikhanovskaya to run.
Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, the first, launched her candidacy to replace her husband, Sergueï Tikhanovski, an ultra-popular YouTuber. Tikhanovski had sounded the anger of everyday Belarusians against Lukashenko's excesses and his disastrous management of COVID-19, and was detained, as a result, in late May.
The second, Veronika Tsepkalo, is the wife of Valery Tsepkalo, who fled Belarus with his wife and children after the country's electoral commission, on July 14, declared his candidacy ineligible. The third, Maria Kolesnikova, is the campaign manager of Viktor Babariko, a former banker who was put behind bars for alleged tax abuses.
Scared but defiant
Thinking that like him, voters would despise a woman who cannot even hold a gun, Lukashenko allowed Tsikhanovskaya to run, refusing all other candidates deemed "serious." No one imagined that the blogger's wife would run a real campaign. The apolitical, lonely and frightened Tsikhanovskaya knew that the authorities could take away custody of her two children on the slightest pretext.
She assured her children — Agnia, 4 and Korney, 7 — that their father was "on a business trip." They have now been moved to an undisclosed EU country. And Tsikhanovskaya, supported by Tsepkalo and Kolesnikova, has discovered a new strength.
"What is happening to us is unprecedented," says Andrej Dynko, a Belarusian journalist. "We all thought Tsikhanovskaya would be just a "static" candidate, but she manages to stir up crowds in Minsk and elsewhere, which is unheard of. Usually, the protest is concentrated only in the capital."
Alesia Rudnik, a political analyst at the Center for New Ideas, a Belarusian think tank, agrees. "Alexander Lukashenko was no doubt counting on the misogyny of the Belarusian people. But Tsikhanovskaya was more astute. She remains a woman, in the traditional sense of the word, who acts out of love for her country and her husband," Rudnik explains.
Tsikhanovskaya's goal, she says, isn't to take power but to give it back. If elected, she promises to organize democratic and transparent elections so that the people can finally choose their president. In her meetings, there is no question of ideology: left, right, liberalism or socialism. What is at stake is to put an end to Lukashenko's more than a quarter-century-long reign.
"Tsikhanovskaya is to play the role of the Belarusian Joan of Arc. I told her that. I believe in her," says Valery Tsepkalo, who was interviewed on July 29 from Moscow, where he had taken refuge. But he's also "afraid for his wife." Tsepkalo said on July 30 that his sister had been kidnapped by unknown perpetrators for a few hours before being interrogated by the police, but remained determined to continue the fight.
"We have a real chance of winning the presidential election this time," he says. "You can feel the wall starting to crack. Everything will depend on the electoral authorities."
The COVID-19 effect
Indeed, there's a real sense that the head of state has lost the hearts of voters. In the streets of Minsk, people have spray-painted "Sasha 3%," in reference to the dismal level of support that Alexander (Sasha) Lukashenko still commands.
It's a made up number, and likely an exaggerated one. Polling isn't allowed, though some unofficial studies suggest that 25-35% of voters still back him. That's higher, obviously, than 3% but much lower than the 80% support he has claimed in every election since 1994, and now lower than that of his rival Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who is credited with just over 35% of the vote.
So what happened to Lukashenko? More specifically, why is this happening now?
Analysts point to the COVID-19 pandemic as the tipping point. "After years of crisis that wore down the government, the coronavirus served as a trigger," says Tadeusz Giczan, a Belarusian researcher based in London.
The crowd at a Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya rally in Minsk — Photo: Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMA
"There was a kind of social contract between the president and the Belarusian people based on the idea that the lack of freedoms was compensated for by the protection offered against the Russian neighbor," he adds. "With him, there would be no annexation like in Crimea. He was the protector president."
Alesia Rudnik says that by scorning the dangerous nature of COVID-19 — which he described as a "psychosis' that is treated in the open air and with a shot of vodka — the so called "father of the people" betrayed his citizens. "Belarusians had become apolitical and resigned," she says. "They observed repression in Minsk, but it only affected them on the margins. The coronavirus threatens them directly. It forced them to think."
Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievitch agrees. "Lukashenko thought he could deceive the society that had become silent by telling stories and scaring them," she explained in a July 22 interview with Radio Free Europe. "But that's not what happened. A new generation has grown up and people have regained consciousness. These are not the same people who existed 26 years ago, when Lukashenko began to rule."
Faced with what could be the beginning of his end, Lukashenko is isolating himself and brandishing the threat of armed repression. He is fleeing large gatherings, becoming more reluctant to grant accreditations to the foreign press and visiting his military bases.
"Our task is to prevent the destruction of the state," says Andrei Ravkov, the state secretary of the National Security Council. On July 28, pro-government television broadcasted footage of the training of the so-called "3,214" unit attached to the Ministry of the Interior. The troops, described as "zombies' — they are said to have been brainwashed in order to devote themselves to "saving the country and the president" — have been called upon to disperse crowds in recent riots.
The human rights organization Viasna claims that more than 1,100 people have already been arrested and detained since the first demonstrations in May. Lukashenko is threatening to take even more extreme measures if he has to. "There will be no Maidan in Belarus," he warned in June, in reference to the popular uprising in Ukraine that overthrew the government in 2014.
The president is convinced that the Belarusian uprising is the result of a manipulation of foreign forces from the East or West. This theory was supported by the July 29 arrest of around 30 alleged members of Wagner, a private Russian militia. Accused of being Kremlin thugs, these men are suspected by the Belarusian authorities of "preparing acts of terrorism" aimed at destabilizing the presidential campaign.
There will be no Maidan in Belarus.
Russia, for its part, denies any interference. "Russia and Belarus are allies, the closest partners," says Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Researcher Tadeusz Giczan points out that the "foreign interference" story is repeated during every election, but says this is the first time that Lukashenko made Russia the target of his claims.
It falls, falls, falls
As the elections approach, no one really dares to believe in a revolution for Belarus. But there is hope that Lukashenko can begin to contemplate his successor. "We don't believe there will be free elections, but we believe that the president will understand that his time is up. The people no longer want him," says Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya.
Little wonder that in the town of Gomel, it was L'Estaca that Tsikhanovskaya's supporters chose to sing out.
If we all pull, it will fall
and it will not endure for long,
it is sure that it falls, falls, falls,
it should already be well rotten.
If you pull hard here,
and I pull hard there,
it is sure that it falls, falls, falls,
and we can liberate ourselves
Four days later, in Minsk, tens of thousands of the candidate's backers took part in the country's the largest opposition gathering in at least a decade. Vasnia, the human rights group, estimates that at least 63,000 turned out.
More than a show of support, it was also an act of defiance given the threat of repression by Lukashenko's security apparatus, which continues to jail opponents and accuse them of organizing "riots' with the help of Russian paramilitaries.