Could She Upset Belarus’ Dictator?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Russian border country is on the verge of a democratic revolution.
By Pallabi Munsi
The streets of Minsk were bursting at the seams. More than 63,000 people had gathered to rally for 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former English teacher and translator with dimpled cheeks and a reluctant smile.
She made the rally personal, telling the crowd how she had to hide her two children in “one of the European countries” after she received anonymous threats that they would be taken away if she didn’t stop campaigning. The crowd shouted, “Shame!” in response.
Such political rallies are uncommon in Belarus, but this was no one-off event. Over the past two weeks, Tikhanovskaya, who laughingly said at another rally that she’d “rather be frying cutlets at home than run for the post of the president of Belarus,” has drawn record-breaking crowds in Minsk, Brest and a dozen smaller cities. And her rhetoric has only gotten stronger ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.
If [Tikhanovskaya] were given the opportunity to lead the country, I think she could do it.
David Marples, Belarus expert
With her three-pronged goal of freeing all political and economic prisoners, establishing conditions for fair elections and allowing all candidates to participate — even those who are currently incarcerated — Tikhanovskaya is waging an extraordinary campaign against dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and typically declares victory with more than three-quarters of the vote.
In Lukashenko’s Belarus, independent political leaders are seen as brave yet reckless, even foolish, for voluntarily jumping into the spotlight and risking his wrath.
So it was this year: Election officials ensured that Lukashenko’s three strongest challengers weren’t allowed to register. That ended the campaigns of Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States; Viktor Babariko, a Gazprom banker; and Sergei Tikhanovsky, an advertising entrepreneur and popular political blogger who has nicknamed Lukashenko “Cockroach.” Tsepkalo fled the country; Babariko and Tikhanovsky — Svetlana’s husband — were jailed.
Then something unusual happened: Women stepped into the breach. Veronika Tsepkalo, Valery’s wife, and Maria Kolesnikova, Barbariko’s campaign manager, joined Tikhanovskaya to oppose Lukashenko. The three women announced their decision with a photo shoot: Tikhanovskaya appeared with raised arm and clenched fist, flanked by Tsepkalo flashing a “V” for victory sign and Kolesnikova forming a heart with her hands — the photo is now emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to balloons.
“Do you think I’m not scared? I’m scared every day,” Tikhanovskaya said at one small-town rally. “But I muster my courage, get over my fear and go to you and go for victory.”
Her approach has struck a chord with citizens. “She hasn’t learned how to speak like a politician — she is very authentic, very genuine,” says Minsk-based political analyst Artyom Shraibman.
While polling to gauge the political mood in Belarus is prohibited, signs are starting to appear, both on social media and in the streets, that people have stopped being afraid of Lukashenko. Spontaneous protests in 2017 against a new “parasite” law taxing long-term unemployed people led him to back down. The biggest opposition is brewing in response to how dismissive Lukashenko has been about the coronavirus pandemic, refusing to take protective action, says David Marples, a history professor at the University of Alberta and an expert on Belarus.
“In an honest and fair manner, there is no way Lukashenko could get the 65 percent vote any respectable dictator needs,” Marples says. “It’s the beginning of the end for him — perhaps not in a week or two but soon. We only don’t know how that’ll happen.”
Lukashenko has also managed to alienate both neighboring Russia, which has been pushing for more economic integration, and the European Union, which doesn’t take kindly to authoritarianism. “He has no friend,” says Shraibman.
Given Lukashenko’s control over the system — he won’t allow independent election observers — it remains unlikely that Tikhanovskaya will win outright, but the past couple of weeks have fueled the fire of a growing dissent.
Tikhanovskaya has blossomed as a politician. When she first started, she was seen as merely a placeholder for her husband. “She couldn’t even give an interview for a few minutes,” Shraibman says. But with practice came confidence, and now she works the crowd like a pro.
Tikhanovskaya vows she will hold another free election in six months if she wins. But, Marples says, “If she were given the opportunity to lead the country, I think she could do it. She is smart, speaks English and she wants what is best for the country.”
Just weeks ago, Lukashenko referred to his opponent as the “poor one,” implying she had no chance. But win or lose, Tikhanovskaya has already showed the dictator to be poorer in support than he once thought himself to be.
- Pallabi Munsi, OZY Author Contact Pallabi Munsi