Belarus: The last European dictatorship could be on the verge of collapse because of three women | World news

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This is not the election that the longtime leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, had planned.

The last five were not fought hard. No need, when the whole state apparatus is actively engaged, to create a slam-dunk majority for the incumbent.

This Sunday was to be another symbolic polling day that would see Mr Lukashenko heading into his third decade in power.

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (C), seen in Moscow, is not used to questioning his hold on power

It was not the case.

The remarkable charisma and campaign of his three female challengers may even mean that this term turns out to be his last.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova are the wives and campaign manager of three presidential candidates banned from running.

They have taken on the mission their men cannot, joining efforts behind Ms. Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old mother and housewife, to rally the ever-growing opposition behind one voice.

Ms Tikhanovskaya’s husband Sergei is a popular YouTube blogger. Maria’s boss, Victor Babariko, is a banker. Both were imprisoned during the campaign.

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Veronika Tsepkalo’s husband Valery, fearing arrest, fled to Moscow with the couple’s twins

Veronika’s husband, Valery, is a former Ambassador to the United States and a key figure in Belarusian IT industry.

He had to flee to Moscow with the couple’s twins after feeling the condition going in circles.

“When you received information from two independent sources about plans to arrest you and take your children away on the false accusations that we were bad parents, we decided,” he told me as he took his sons to see the Kremlin for the first time. time.

Children of opposition candidates have previously been taken away and placed in state orphanages.

Ms Tikhanovskaya also had to send her children to Europe to protect them.

Nothing beats that risk.

Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya waves to supporters at rally in July
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Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at a rally in July

Sky News was denied accreditation to cover the elections, so we commissioned a filmmaker in Belarus to document the women’s campaign.

It is a glance at the wall of the spirit that animates them and that has so captured the hearts of their compatriots.

“So many times during this campaign, I almost quit,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya told a crowd of tens of thousands in the town of Mogilev.

“I am not a public figure and I am a weak person to face the actions of the government towards me as a mother and wife.

“But just the belief that you are together as a nation, you got me through this. “

Supporters of presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya copy the hand gestures of the three women at a rally in the town of Maladzechna
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Svetlana Tikhanovskaya supporters copy campaign hand gestures

They drew in crowds never seen before in post-Soviet Belarus: 60,000 in the capital Minsk last week, tens of thousands in each of the cities they visited.

This program has been exhausting for political novices and the stress is clear.

But it was their emotional candor and determination that gave hope to millions of Belarusians desperate for change.

“I’m the same person, insecure,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya told Sky News.

“But this is my mission – I must overcome all these difficulties and bring our country to a free future and become a mother and wife again.

“People say women are generally weak. Maybe we are. But when there is a need, when our duty calls us and we must be strong, we are. “

Massive crowds, like that in Minsk in July, turned to supporters of presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya
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Massive crowds, like that in Minsk in July, came out to support presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya

Their program is simple: free the political prisoners and, if Ms. Tikhanovskaya wins, hold free and fair elections within six months.

Since early May, the human rights group Viasna estimates that around 1,300 people have been arrested for protesting against the regime.

Completely unjustified scenes of police brutality make it clear why Belarus still deserves the name of Europe’s last dictatorship.

At a rally in the city of Babrysk, a schoolteacher gave her a summary of what it’s like to live in Belarus.

She had spent a year and a half in custody on false charges, she said, but had not hesitated to speak out.

“It is a country of utter disappointment. On television they say one thing and in reality it is different, ”she said.

“In Babrysk all the factories have stopped working, people have no more money to live on – hunger will bring them to the streets.

“This is how we live and we don’t want to live like this. “

(Left to right) Veronika Tsepkalo, presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova campaigning in Minsk in July
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(Left to right) Veronika Tsepkalo, presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova campaigning in Minsk in July

COVID-19 has exacerbated the discontent.

Mr Lukashenko initially denied its existence, advocating vodka and banyas (steam baths) as treatment while his people were dying, only to admit recently that he himself had had an asymptomatic case.

Civil society has stepped in where the state would not, delivering supplies to hospitals across the country. It made people realize that they could make a difference.

The president seems more and more desperate.

In a strange incident last week, 33 suspected mercenaries from the Russian private military company Wagner were arrested at a sanatorium outside Minsk.

According to the Belarusian KGB, they had raised suspicions because they did not drink alcohol like regular Russian tourists would.

Moscow says they were in transit. Mr Lukashenko says they are part of a plot to instigate a color revolution in Minsk.

He told a Ukrainian journalist on Friday that he would take up arms against “hybrid aggression” if all other options were exhausted.

This is unlikely to happen. Ms Tikhanovskaya’s team has no desire to cause trouble.

Alexander Lukashenko (pictured here with Vladimir Putin) is against the imposition of strict coronavirus measures
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Alexander Lukashenko (pictured here with Vladimir Putin) was against the imposition of strict coronavirus measures

Moscow has neither the will nor the means to get involved in a takeover of power in Minsk.

Mr Lukashenko’s imagination seems to run wild as he realizes that his popular support has vanished.

But that does not mean an electoral defeat. Members of local election committees across the country have jobs to keep and families to keep.

Reporting the actual vote count risks all of this.

In addition, the elites are well established in Belarus. They will not allow this election to end with anything but fate even if the winds of change begin to blow.

The fairy tale still has a few hours to go before the polls close on Sunday evening.

The Belarusian people recognize that there will be no happy ending this time around.

But they also know that something in the stagnant politics of the past two decades has changed, thanks to three courageous women who refuse to let an old school autocrat break up their family or their country.

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