Svetlana Tikhanovskaya would rather fry chops than run for President of Belarus.
At least, that’s what the stay-at-home mom laughed at a crowd of supporters at a recent campaign rally.
But she also told them that this electoral candidacy to challenge the 26-year-old hold of Alexander Lukashenko on power was a “mission” that she could not refuse.
The political novice only stepped in as a presidential candidate when her husband was arrested and prevented from registering. A second serious rival of Mr Lukashenko also ended up in prison and a third fled the country.
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Thus, 37-year-old Ms Tikhanovskaya, who had to send her two children abroad for security reasons, has become the surprised face of change in Belarus.
She teamed up with Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of one potential candidate, and Maria Kolesnikova, campaign manager for another,
And the three women drew record crowds to rallies across the country.
“They are not Margaret Thatcher, the kind of women who have been in politics all their life, but they are very sincere”, is how Valery Tsepkalo explained the unique attraction of the trio, in an interview in Moscow. .
A former ambassador to the United States, Mr. Tsepkalo’s own attempt to enter the presidential race was rejected.
He told the BBC that he had to leave Belarus after obtaining information “from several sources” that his arrest was imminent.
“In previous election campaigns, Lukashenko had public support. But this time he’s gone and that’s why he’s so nervous, ”says Tsepkalo.
The change in mood was captured by Ms Tikhanovskaya’s husband Sergei in a popular video blog. For months he traveled to Belarus interviewing people, from farmers to retirees.
Remarkably, they complained about pervasive corruption and poverty, a lack of opportunities and poor wages.
“I was two years old when the cockroach came to power,” a man named Vladimir told Tikhanovsky in a video, using the blogger’s nickname for the Belarusian president. “My child is two years old now, and I just want something to change. ”
“We are here to end the dictatorship,” said another man.
This pent-up frustration became public when Belarusians began registering to support opposition candidates planning to register in the August 9 elections. When they were banned, crowds took to the streets in anger.
Human rights group Viasna said more than 1,000 peaceful protesters have been arrested this summer alone, of whom nearly 200 have spent up to 15 days in detention.
“It is a reaction to the unprecedented level of public commitment, to the spread of protests and to opposition to the president,” explains Minsk-based political analyst Artyom Shraibman, explains the authorities’ firm response.
He argues that a significant decline in support for Mr Lukashenko – even in traditional and rural strongholds – has been fueled by a “dark” decade of economic stagnation crowned with anger over the president’s contemptuous response to the Covid crisis. 19.
“You had this perfect storm of factors that were against Lukashenko in this election campaign,” Mr. Shraibman said.
Plots and problems
While the Tikhanovskaya team visited the country meeting and motivated voters, President Lukashenko visited his security forces.
For years, his main call to voters was to be the guarantor of stability.
Thus, on Tuesday, he was treated to a demonstration of the latest crowd dispersal techniques by riot police.
And the next day, he claimed to have uncovered a foreign plot to “destabilize” the country – a threat the president had warned and vowed to prevent “at all costs”.
Images of beefy men handcuffed in their underwear were shown on state television, and officials claimed 33 mercenaries from the Russian private military group Wagner were arrested at a sanatorium outside Minsk.
Russia called for the speedy release of its citizens, claiming they were in transit and had “nothing to do with … Belarusian affairs,” and the men had certainly lived very openly for so-called coup plotters.
But this strange affair is a blow to relations with Moscow, traditionally a close ally of Minsk.
It is also a serious new concern for Ms Tikhanovskaya, as investigators linked her husband directly to the detainees and accused the blogger of planning “mass unrest”.
Her campaign speeches are sometimes interrupted by sighs as she admits struggling with the pressure of a role she would never have chosen.
“It’s a scary time, but we feel tremendous support from the people,” Ms Tsepkalo told the BBC by phone between rallies: When her husband fled Belarus, she stayed to support Svetlana.
“We see the change for Belarus as fresh air. It’s needed as soon as possible, ”she said.
Women don’t have a political program, just a plea: vote for Svetlana to oust Mr. Lukashenko, then she will call fresh and fair elections and release all political prisoners.
“I will fulfill my mission, then I will walk away quietly,” she said at a rally, laughing when a man shouted at her to stay.
Despite the buzz surrounding the women’s candidacy, Alexander Lukashenko won elections in Belarus by a landslide for nearly three decades. A recent official poll gave the president over 70% popular support even now.
Opposition supporters are therefore wary of fraud.
“What happens on election day is very important,” said Mr. Shraibman.
“The security forces are ready to crack down and in the past they have not used 10% of what is in their toolbox.
“I think the question now is how brutal the crackdown will be – and how big the protests will be,” he said.