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Who is the woman challenging Belarusian President Lukashenko?

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has emerged as the main opponent of the Belarusian president in the August 9 vote.

by: Mariya Petkova

Tikhanovskaya's team has struggled to conduct campaign activities [Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters]
Tikhanovskaya’s team has struggled to conduct campaign activities [Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters]

On July 14, Belarus’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC) announced the list of candidates registered for the upcoming presidential elections.

Among those who made it, along with incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko, was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former English teacher and a housewife with no prior political experience.

When she emerged from CEC’s building, holding her signed registration document, journalists and allies congratulated her, but she seemed hesitant.

“I’m not sure if I want this congratulations,” she said with a slight smile.

The 37-year-old mother of two had been receiving threats over her decision to run in the elections, which forced her to send her children out of the country, accompanied by their grandmother.

Tikhanovskaya has been honest about her lack of experience in politics and has said she had made the decision to join the presidential race spontaneously. It followed the arrest of her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular Youtube blogger who had tried to register as a candidate.

Tikhanovskaya had hoped this would draw attention to his case and help get him released, but had not really expected the authorities would actually allow her to run.

Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanouskaya attends an election campaign rally in Minsk

Tikhanovskaya, centre, Kolesnikova, right, and Veronika Tsepkalo attend an election campaign rally [Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters]

What happened next surprised Tikhanovskaya herself, the Belarusian authorities and even longtime observers of Belarusian politics.

Within days of her registration, Tikhanovskaya managed to gather massive crowds at her rallies across the country.

In Minsk, an estimated 63,000 people showed up to her campaign event on July 30. Thousands also attended her rallies in smaller provincial towns, where traditional Belarusian opposition has had a hard time establishing a foothold in the past.

Tikhanovskaya has emerged as a significant challenger to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. Analysts predict the August 9 elections may well prove to be a turning point in Belarusian politics.

The ‘third force’

Tikhanovskaya’s transformation from a frightened housewife, who was trying to get her husband out of jail, to a popular opposition candidate happened remarkably quickly, aided by a number of factors.

First – the authorities did not seem to perceive her as a political threat.

“Tikhanovskaya, at the beginning of her campaign, appeared very weak. She was indeed under enormous pressure, she was very scared,” Katia Glod, a London-based scholar and consultant on former Soviet countries, told Al Jazeera.

“The authorities thought ‘well, she is very weak, we can easily pressure her, we can destroy her at any time’. But they miscalculated,” she said.

According to Glod, the reason for this miscalculation is Lukashenko’s own patriarchal, retrograde views on women.

In late May, as Tikhanovskaya was still gathering signatures for her nomination as candidate, Lukashenko said in a speech at a tractor factory in Minsk that he was “absolutely sure” the next Belarusian president would be a man.

Belarus activist challenges ‘Europe’s last dictator’ in election (2:40)

“Our constitution is not for women. Our society has not matured enough to vote for a woman. This is because by constitution the president handles a lot of power,” he said.

On July 17, three days after Tikhanovskaya received her registration documents, she was endorsed by two disqualified opposition candidates: Viktor Babaryko and Valery Tsepkalo.

On the campaign trail, she was joined by two other women – Barbaryko’s campaign manager Maria Kolesnikova, and Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika, who helped provide organisational and logistical support.

The three of them appeared together on campaign posters and at rallies, thus solidifying the image of a women-led campaign challenging Lukashenko’s patriarchal rule.

According to Glod, Tikhanovskaya’s popularity is also due to the fact that she has come to represent a new force in Belarusian politics, centred around Barbaryko, a former bank manager, Tsepkalo, a former diplomat, and her husband Tikhanovsky.

They have put forward a new, more positive vision for the country, different than what the traditional opposition used to offer – old political demands and nationalistic slogans.

“All these people, they are not opposition, they are a third force. They were the ones who managed in the first place to attract public support. And then Tikhanovskaya became the symbol, an instrument of change,” Glod said.

Anti-Lukashenko sentiment

Apart from being a new face in politics backed by a popular coalition of forces, Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has also benefitted from the growing anti-Lukashenko sentiment in the country.

According to Olga Dryndova, a Berlin-based researcher and contributing editor to Belarus-Analysen at the University of Bremen, the unpopularity of the Belarusian president has deepened as a result of his mismanagement of the economy and inconsistent information policy during the coronavirus outbreak in the country.

“It was surprising for me that people were so unsatisfied with the authorities, and personally with Lukashenko […], that [they] just united around this new, spontaneous candidate without political experience,” she told Al Jazeera.

Currently, there is no independent polling in Belarus and it is difficult to estimate the true extent of Lukashenko’s unpopularity, Dryndova said.

A March 2016 opinion poll conducted by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies before it was forced to stop its operations nine months later, suggested that about 27 percent of respondents were willing to vote for Lukashenko.

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko

Lukashenko said he was ‘absolutely sure’ the next Belarusian president would be a man [Sergei Gapon/AFP] 

In a July 2020 poll, conducted for a state TV channel, 69.4 percent said they would vote for the incumbent president.

After the initial success of her rallies, Tikhanovskaya’s team has struggled to conduct campaign activities in the days leading up to the election, as the authorities have arrested a number of its members and started snatching from the streets people who have tried to attend her events.

Her remaining rallies were eventually banned.

State media have also reported that investigators are looking into a link between Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei and a group of Russian mercenaries who were arrested on August 29 and who have been accused of preparing “terrorists acts” in Belarus. She has denied any such ties exist. 

On August 4, Lukashenko gave a state of the nation speech, in which he threatened “harsh sanctions” against any unauthorised demonstrations ahead of the elections and implicitly warned the political elite not to “betray” him.

Free and fair

According to Dryndova, Lukashenko appears to be “scared” and he is unlikely to allow for a free and fair election on August 9.

The vote will not have international observers and independent observers have already been harassed after early voting started on August 4.

In her view, Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has galvanised the Belarusian public to such an extent that repression might not stop the popular demand for change.

“There is a feeling of majority, a majority that wants a new president and this can really bring a new dynamic of developments within the society, even if the elections are not free and fair and even if [subsequent] protests are suppressed,” Dryndova said.

“It’s really a very interesting, historic moment for Belarus. We have never seen anything like that. Right now we really have no idea what could happen. Everything is possible. The Belarusian society is really surprising everybody this [electoral] season.”

Posted in Belarus0 Comments

Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko Cartoons and Comics - funny pictures from ...

By: craig Murray

There is a misperception in western media that Lukashenko is Putin’s man. That is not true; Putin views him as an exasperating and rather dim legacy. There is also a misperception in the west that Lukashenko really lost the recent election. That is not true. He almost certainly won, though the margin is much exaggerated by the official result. Minsk is not Belarus, just as London is not the UK. Most of Belarus is pretty backward and heavily influenced by the state machinery. Dictators have all kinds of means at their disposal to make themselves popular. That is why the odd election or plebiscite does not mean that somebody is not a dictator. Lukashenko is a dictator, as I have been saying for nigh on twenty years.

My analysis is that Lukashenko probably won handily, with over 60% of the vote. But it was by no means a free and fair election. The media is heavily biased (remember you can also say that of the UK), and the weak opposition candidate was only there because, one way or the other, all the important opposition figures are prevented from standing.

The West is trying to engineer popular opinion in Belarus towards a “colour revolution”, fairly obviously. But they are on a sticky wicket. Western Ukraine was genuinely enthusiastic to move towards the west and the EU, in the hope of attaining a consumer lifestyle. Outside of central Minsk, there is very little such sentiment in Belarus. Most important of all, Belarus means “White Russia”, and the White Russians very strongly identify themselves as culturally Russian. We will not see a colour revolution in Belarus. The West is trying, however.

Unlike many of my readers, I see nothing outrageous in this. Attempting to influence the political direction of another country to your favour is a key aim of diplomacy, and always has been. I was a rather good exponent of it on behalf of the UK government for a couple of decades. The BBC World Service has always been FCO funded and its entire existence has been based on this attempt to influence, by pumping out propaganda in scores of languages, from its very inception. The British Council is not spending millions promoting British culture abroad from a pure love of Shakespeare. Government funding is given to NGO’s that aim to influence media and society. Future leaders are identified and brought on training and degree courses to wed them to pro-British sympathies.

I do not have any trouble with any of that. It is part of what diplomacy is. It is of course amusing when the British state works itself into a frenzy over Russia carrying out exactly the same type of activity that the British do on a much larger scale. But it is all part of an age old game. If I were Ambassador to Belarus now, I would have no moral qualms about turning up to support an anti-Lukashenko demo. It is all part of the job.

There is of course a murkier aspect of all this, where activities are hidden rather than open. The British state funded Integrity Initiative’s work in secretly paying foreign media journalists, or creating thousands of false social media identities to push a narrative (the latter also undertaken by MOD and GCHQ among others), is more dubious. So is MI6’s more traditional work of simply suborning politicians, civil servants and generals with large bundles of cash. But again, I can’t get too worked up about it. It is the dirtier end of the game, but time-honoured, with understood boundaries. Again, my major objection is when the UK gets ludicrously sanctimonious about Russia doing precisely what the UK does on a far larger scale.

But then we get into a far darker area, of assassinations, false flag shootings and bombings and false incrimination. Here a line is crossed, lives are destroyed and violent conflict precipitated. Here I am not prepared to say that time honoured international practice makes these acts acceptable. This line was crossed in the Ukraine; for reasons given above I do not think that the tinder exists to trigger the striking of such a spark in Belarus.

I should be very happy to see Lukashenko go. Term limits on the executive should be a factor in any decent democracy. Once you have the levers of power, it is not difficult to maintain personal popularity for many decades, barring external shock; popularity is not the same as democratic legitimacy. I should state very plainly, as I have before, that I think it was absolutely wrong of Putin to outstay his two terms, irrespective of constitutional sophistry and irrespective of popular support.

The ideal would be for Lukashenko to go and for there to be fresh elections, as opposed to the Venezuelan tactic of the West just announcing a President who has never won an election. The best result for the people of Belarus and for international stability would be the election of a reform minded but broadly pro-Russian candidate. Putin has used the crisis to re-assert the “union” of Russia and Belarus – signed 20 years ago this is a single market and free trade area. Few would doubt, crucially including few Belarussians, that the future of Belarus lies with integration with Russia rather than the EU.

History’s greatest criticism of Putin will be his failure to diversify the Russian economic base and move it from raw commodity exporter to high value added economy. His aims for Belarus will be to ensure it fits neatly with the template of massive commodity exports controlled by a tight knit and highly wealthy oligarchy. Putin will have no interest in the economic reforms Belarus needs.

My expectation is that Lukashenko will hang on, reorienting the economy back towards Russia. Putin’s long term policy goal has always been the reintegration into Russia of majority Russophone areas of the old USSR. That has been his policy in Ukraine and Georgia. Belarus is a major prize. He will seek to bind Belarus in tighter, probably through increased energy subsidy (Putin’s economic arsenal is very limited). Getting rid of Lukashenko is going to move up Putin’s to do list; I give it three years. The current demonstrations in Minsk have no major economic or social effect, and will pass.

UPDATE 17 AUGUST

I just wrote the following in response to a comment below, and I think it usefully explains an important bit of my thinking: and not just on Belarus.

I think the difference between myself and many of my readers is that while we both recognise “western” government as plunder by the capitalist elite exploiting the working class and a fake democracy controlled by a media serving the elite, you and others seem to think that governments are a lot better just because they are anti-Western.
Whereas I believe that many anti-Western governments – Lukashenko, Assad and yes Putin – are also plunder by the capitalist elite exploiting the working class and a fake democracy controlled by a media serving the elite. Just organised a bit differently. And with a still worse approach to civil liberties.

Posted in BelarusComments Off on Belarus


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