‘We don’t want blood, we just want change’: The extraordinary campaign to unseat Belarusian ‘dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko

For years Alexander Lukashenko mocked the role of woman in politics, but then Svetlana Tikhanovskaya appeared from nowhere. She speaks to Oliver Carroll ahead of next week's election

Thursday 06 August 2020 15:28 BST
Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (C), Veronika Tsepkalo (L), wife and representative of non-registered presidential candidate Valery Tsepkalo, and Maria Kolesnikova (R), a representative of non-registered presidential candidate Victor Babariko.
Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (C), Veronika Tsepkalo (L), wife and representative of non-registered presidential candidate Valery Tsepkalo, and Maria Kolesnikova (R), a representative of non-registered presidential candidate Victor Babariko. (EPA)

Over the next two weeks, Alexander Lukashenko faces the fight of his life.

It was never supposed to be like this – not in Belarus. Not with a self-styled dictator who has previously declared election victories with 75.6 per cent, 82.6 per cent, 79.65 per cent, and 84.14 per cent of the vote. Not with a sophisticated system of modern authoritarianism, one that made independent political activity the preserve of the brave and foolhardy.

This time around, the regime did all the things it usually does. Election officials refused to register the three strongest challengers from the field. Out went Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the US, Viktor Babariko, a banker, and Sergei Tikhanovski, advertising entrepreneur and popular political blogger. The latter two were arrested and jailed for their troubles.

Despite all that, the 9 August election is gearing up to be the political story of the summer. Battered by criticism over his Covid-19 denialism, the five-term incumbent Lukashenko appears to be in real trouble: regularly upstaged by opposition forces, with unprecedented protests taking place across the country.

Even more embarrassing for the macho leader who claims the presidency is “too much for a woman” to handle, his most obvious nemesis is female.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of jailed Sergei Tikhonovsky, was propelled into politics following the arrest of her husband in May.

A former translator, secretary and, for the last 10 years, a shy, stay-at-home mum, she tells The Independent she is no politician. She spent much of the last year persuading her “opinionated” husband to do what everyone else in the country did – lie low. She says she anguished as she witnessed surveillance and arrests step up in line with Sergei’s YouTube popularity and informal campaign around the end of last year.

But Ms Tikhanovskaya says she knew she had “no right” to stop her husband, and the last time he was arrested, vowed to continue his work. She registered as a candidate. Extraordinarily for a declared opposition candidate in Belarus, she was allowed to run.

What followed was equally extraordinary.

Defying predictions the opposition would find it difficult to unite, Ms Tikhanovskaya snapped to common language with Maria Kolesnikova, the head of Viktor Barbariko’s presidential campaign, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery, the other barred candidate. The basics of an agreement were hammered out in 15 minutes, and a full oral understanding in under a couple of hours.

As the registered candidate, Ms Tikhanovskaya would lead the campaign platform. There would be just three pledges: to free political prisoners, reverse authoritarian changes to the constitution made in 1996, and to run new, free elections within six months.

The three women announced their decision with a photoshoot: Ms Tikhanovskaya appeared with a clenched fist, flanked by Ms Tsepkalo with a “V” for victory sign and Ms Kolesnikova, with a heart. The symbolism was “spontaneous”, Ms Tikhanovskaya insists, and one of the very few things the group committed to paper. “Don’t think it was some campaign prepared months ago. It was all about the situation we found ourselves in.”

For some, the optics were too perfect. The instant agreement. The women leaders. The fact Ms Tikhanovskaya was registered in the first place.

Elements of the Belarusian opposition converged with an unusual ally, Mr Lukashenko, in blaming the invisible hand of Moscow – an ungraspable law of nature in these parts.

Those who wanted evidence found it easily enough. Viktor Babariko made his money as a manager for a bank owned by Russia’s Gazprom. Valery Tsepkalo retains links with the Belarusian elite – and fled to Russia with his children shortly after his non-registration. Nationalistic opponents of Sergei Tikhanovsky have also criticised his production contracts with Russian stars.

Ms Tikhanovskaya rejects the criticism as “silly rumours” that are “impossible to engage with”. She couldn’t speak on behalf of the other campaign teams, but as far as her husband was concerned, she was “more than sure” of his propriety. She saw how he had “looked for kopecks” to pay for petrol while campaigning. If they were Russian agents, they’d have a bit more cash in the bank, she reasoned.

Mr Tikhonovski was a leader in protests against closer integration with Russia, and spent 30 days in prison for his trouble: “We know all about Lukashenko’s road maps with Russia, which will slowly but surely lead to full unification. Ask yourself who the pro-Russian candidate really is.”

Ms Tikhanovskaya has grown in self-assurance since the unexpected start to her political career. In conversation with The Independent, she delivers weighted positions that disguise the lack of formal political experience.

On Russia, the policy was to be “friends with everyone” – but reduce dependence on oil and gas handouts. On the “painful” subject of Crimea, “de jure” it was Ukrainian, “de facto” Russian, and she wouldn’t drive people further apart by committing to either. She would stay middle of the road on the most controversial social issues like gay marriage: “I’m totally fine with same-sex relations and think any love is wonderful, but perhaps our country isn’t ready for a decision on this just yet.”

Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has not shied from taboos. As a registered candidate she was allowed a short broadcast on state TV, and she used it to extraordinary effect. For the first time in many years, viewers were told about political prisoners and arrests. She attacked the president’s Covid-19 denialism and alleged low ratings.

Quite how popular the president is is unclear, given that independent polling is illegal in Belarus. One unofficial online poll had him at 3 per cent. That figure is likely to be highly misleading given the president’s historical electoral base. But it has become somewhat of an opposition slogan, and was unwittingly amplified by the president himself when he complained about “3 per cent” Lukashenko jokes. On this, as on much else, the old-fashioned autocrat has found himself behind the curve of modern social media and meme culture.

David Marples, a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, and long time Belarus watcher, suggests that a free vote could be quite evenly split.

“Coronavirus and economic problems have conspired to undermine a belief Lukashenko can deliver,” he says. For most of his time in office, the president kept his side of an “unspoken contract” – good pensions and living standards in exchange for political submission. Now, the model is broken.

“There is no obvious or honest way for Lukashenko to get the 65 per cent any respectable dictator needs,” Mr Marples says. “It’s the beginning of the end for him – perhaps not in two weeks time, but not far beyond. The fear has gone.”

In a sign of increasing nervousness, Belarus’s long time leader has started to to hint at the use of force. On Friday, he said he had “learned the lessons of 2010”, when protests erupted following his claimed overwhelming victory, and were suppressed with the help of riot police. “I understand the need to have well-prepared soldiers ready just in case,” he said.

Ms Tikhanovskaya, who has evacuated her children out of Belarus, tells The Independent that there wasn’t a moment where she didn’t feel “very, very frightened”.

But it was a fear the whole county shared, she insists.

“I hope they will listen to their people – and never, ever send in the tanks or soldiers,” she says. “We don’t want blood, we just want change.”

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