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The Women Risking Everything to Oppose Belarus’ Dictator Lukashenko

Sarah Hurst reports on the opposition provided by women candidates in the forthcoming presidential elections and the threats they face from Europe’s ‘last dictator’

Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (left) joined by Maria Kolesnikova at a rally on 25 July. Photo: Natalia Fedosenko/Tass/PA Images

The Women Risking Everything to Oppose Belarus’ Dictator Lukashenko

Sarah Hurst reports on the opposition provided by female candidates in the forthcoming presidential elections and the threats they face from Europe’s ‘last dictator’

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Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says she has sent her young children to an EU country for their safety with the help of Natalya Radina, the editor of the Charter 97 independent news site.

Tikhanovskaya has a four-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son and the Government of President Alexander Lukashenko has threatened to remove them from her. Tikhanovskaya is running for President in the country’s election on 9 August because her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a blogger who had wanted to run, is in jail. She has promised to hold new free elections if she wins.

Tikhanovskaya has teamed up with two other women, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, to hold rallies. Tsepkalo is the wife of rejected candidate Valery Tsepkalo, and Kolesnikova is the spokeswoman for popular banker Viktor Babariko, who also failed to register as a candidate after being jailed on charges of embezzlement and fraud.

“You all know why I found myself in this position,” Tikhanovskaya said at a press conference with Tsepkalo and Kolesnikova. “Because of love. Love for my husband. That’s why I decided to continue the work that was so important to him.

“I love Belarus and Belarusians. So I’m going to continue with this despite all the attempts to break me. I love my children. I want them to grow up in a free country. I don’t want them to go to prison like we’ve had to. My husband Sergei Tikhanovsky united people, so we’ve also decided to unite to achieve a common goal.”

Lukashenko reacted obliquely with a comment that he would like to rewrite the Constitution to make it compulsory for presidential candidates to have served in the army and, if a candidate is a woman, “send her to the Vitebsk brigade so that she can tell the difference between an armoured vehicle and a tank”.

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. He has been referring to the COVID-19 pandemic as “coronapsychosis”, insisting that no restrictions such as social distancing are necessary. In late June, he hugged Russian President Vladimir Putin at the unveiling of a war memorial in Russia’s Rzhev. 

Discontent with authorities is at an all-time high in Belarus, with people protesting all over the country despite ruthless crackdowns by police.

Opponents of Lukashenko use the slogans “Stop the cockroach!” and “Long live Belarus!” It is considered subversive to wave the red and white flag that Belarus first had for four years after its independence from the Soviet Union.

In the capital, Minsk, people regularly protest by honking their car horns or just cycling through the city, but protestors have also gathered in groups and been arrested violently, along with journalists broadcasting live. 

Speaking to several thousand people at an outdoor rally in Minsk on 19 July, Veronika Tsepkalo said that, since Lukashenko became President, the country’s population had declined by 750,000.

“Last year, our country broke another anti-record,” he told the crowd. “Last year the same number of children were born as in long ago 1945, when our country was lying in ruins after the Great Patriotic War. Think about it, there are fewer and fewer of us every year, and we have to stop this. Our young people are going abroad, whole families of them, looking for a better life, because there’s freedom there. There’s freedom of speech, better money, and most importantly, there’s hope, which Belarusians don’t have here. They understand and leave because there things will be better tomorrow than today, which isn’t the case in Belarus. And we want to change that.”

Another woman who is running for president, former MP Hanna Kanapatskaya, has spoken in favour of moving away from Russia’s orbit. “Belarus is a European country,” she said in her allotted time on national television. “Belarus is an inseparable part of European civilisation. So our country’s European path isn’t a question of geopolitical to and fro between Moscow and Brussels.”

Kanapatskaya called for an end to plans to make a “union state” of Russia and Belarus, an end to the leasing of Belarusian military facilities to Russia, and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Belarus.  

It would be remarkable if the protestors succeed in somehow ousting Lukashenko this year, but it could be their best chance yet. The next challenge would be dealing with Putin’s inevitable strong reaction to a “colour revolution” in the country that he has been hoping to absorb into a union with Russia. 

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