Women challenge the president of the authoritarian race of Belarus

Natalia Fedosenko / TASS via Getty Images

Women hold portraits (left to right) of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova as they take part in a rally for Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian presidential challenger.

KYIV – Under a recently setting summer sun, 63,000 roaring Belarusians waved flags and waved home-made placards of a totally unknown woman just over a month ago. They chanted her name as she climbed into a loose pantsuit on the stage at Minsk Peoples Friendship Park: “Sveta! Sveta! Sveta! “

Sveta is a 37-year-old former English teacher, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. And in just a few weeks she’s gone from the dark and, as she told the protesters, frying cutlets for his children has a familiar name and the biggest political threat to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, nicknamed by the West as “Europe’s last dictator” since coming to power in 1994.

It is an extraordinary rise which has already earned him the Belarusian label “Jeanne D’Arc. “

Equally remarkable given the patriarchal system in place in Belarus and Lukashenko comments On how a female president would “crumble, poor thing,” Tikhanovskaya campaigns alongside two other female political novices, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, who serve as campaign advisers and hype the stage.

Together, the female troika captured the imaginations of frustrated Belarusians with a promise of change and three simple hand gestures that have become symbols of hope for many in the country: ✌️✊❤️.

Tanya Kapitonova / Getty Images

Tsepkalo, Tikhanovskaya and Kolesnikova in Minsk

“The Belarusian people have woken up,” Tsepkalo told BuzzFeed News by phone from Minsk on Friday. “We had been sleeping for 26 years and now we are ready for changes.”

Belarus has historically been heavily dependent on Russia, but has recently taken steps to normalize bilateral relations with the United States after more than a decade of friction.

It seems unlikely that Lukashenko would lose Sunday’s election due to his control over the government and his authoritarian tactics, but the United States is watching with keen eyes how his government behaves in the days leading up to the vote and when the ballots votes are counted. So far, the tactics correspond to a pattern of bullying and harassment.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February, the top US official to do so in more than two decades. And President Donald Trump has appointed Julie Fisher, the first U.S. ambassador to Belarus since the last one was expelled in 2008. Fisher’s appointment moved forward on Wednesday, when she was questioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. .

“The first element to ensure that we can continue to develop this relationship is not to see any setback in the conduct of this presidential election”, Fisher said from the United States and Belarus during the hearing.

Lukashenko, a 65-year-old mustached former Soviet collective farm manager who enjoys good publicity stunts – be it to play ice-hockey with Russian President Vladimir Putin, oscillating scythes with French actor Gérard Depardieu, or feed carrots and watermelon to Steven Seagal – ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 26 years.

Natalia Fedosenko / TASS via Getty Images

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

During this period, the man supporters once affectionately call Batka, meaning “father,” consolidated his power through widespread repression, the expansion of his authority as president, and the systematic dismantling of democratic institutions. from the country.

He won five presidential elections, although all but the first failed to meet democratic standards and involved widespread vote rigging, international election observers said.

Now Lukashenko wants a sixth term as president – and, using familiar tactics, he will almost certainly win again. Its KGB security service has been busy detaining more than 1,300 people considered opponents of the president, including journalists, election observers and U.S. citizens, according to the Human rights group Viasna.

He ordered quick military drills and visited riot police, telling them they “must not allow” street protests. And in a desperate plea for support, he warned an audience of government officials and lawmakers on Tuesday not to “betray” him.

Sergei Gapon / Getty Images

Belarusian security agents arrest a participant in a rally of opposition supporters in Minsk.

“He is preparing for a massive election tampering,” Valery Tsepkalo, former Belarusian ambassador to the United States and founder of High Tech Park in Minsk, told BuzzFeed News in Kiev.

He is the husband of Veronika Tsepkalo and was one of the many personalities who applied to challenge Lukashenko in the elections. But he was forbidden to do so. Fearing arrest, he fled to Moscow with his children before heading to the Ukrainian capital.

Veronika Tsepkalo said authorities have started the process to remove the couple’s children from their custody, even calling their school to inform them of the move. “If they see you as a threat, they go after you,” Tsepkalo said of Lukashenko’s obedient security forces.

Brutal tactics are employed by Lukashenko, her husband said, because the president is cornered. “He’s really alone now,” he says.

Indeed, Lukashenko is facing an unprecedented wave of criticism from Belarusians over gross human rights violations, a stagnant economy that has not improved since 2010, and its inability to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the population of 9.5 million.

Many Belarusians are particularly angry at the president’s mismanagement of the pandemic. Authorities have refused to implement health measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus while Lukashenko himself has it rejected it as a “psychosis” and argued that just drinking vodka, playing ice hockey, going to the sauna and driving tractors in the fields would prevent this.

To make matters worse, he publicly berated those infected with the virus. And then he announced last week that he contracted it himself, but survived it without experiencing any symptoms and remained “on his feet.”

Yuri Tsarik, head of the Russia studies program at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, told BuzzFeed News that Lukashenko made a serious mistake by “positioning himself as a COVID denial” and making comments disrespectful of the people who contracted it. before he does.

“I think he is the one who lost touch with reality,” Tsarik said.

Belarus reported 68,503 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, including 580 deaths.

All of this suggests that victory will not be so easy for Lukashenko this time around and that he will likely face stiff opposition long after the election.

Freelance Belarusian journalist Franak Viacorka told BuzzFeed News that people are desperate for an alternative to Lukashenko, especially the progressive and democratic youth of Belarus, who have lived under his iron rule all or most of their lives.

Nataliya Fedosenko / Nataliya Fedosenko / TASS

Tsepkalo, Tikhanovskaya and Kolesnikova

The attraction of Tikhanovskaya, said Viacorka, is that she “is the opposite of Lukashenko”.

“She is educated, gentle, honest,” while the outgoing president is a “brutal old-school Soviet man,” he added.

These qualities made a strong impression, prompting tens of thousands of Belarusians to attend his rallies in towns and villages across the country almost daily for weeks despite the threat of detention.

Freelance journalist Hanna Liubakova told BuzzFeed News that such massive rallies taking place outside Minsk represent a major difference from past anti-Lukashenko protests that typically took place in the Belarusian capital.

“Even people who have voted for him before are saying, ‘We may have voted for him, but he broke his promises,” she said.

Liubakova said the gatherings themselves also felt different. Instead of the typical political demonstrations of the past, with “boring political speeches”, they feel more “like a rock concert”.

And in some ways they are. The unofficial anthem of the Tikhanovskaya campaign is “Changes”- a song made popular by Russian rock star Viktor Tsoi during perestroika. At each rally, the presidential hopeful and his two acolytes swell the crowd with it. They also laid it on a smooth product campaign video.

This type of grassroots movement was unimaginable before Tikhanovskaya reluctantly entered the political arena after her husband, popular vlogger and presidential candidate Sergei Tikhonovsky, was barred from running, arrested and jailed by authorities. in May.

Liubakova observed that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya can appear awkward on stage, smiling nervously and speaking in a shaky voice, asking supporters to “forgive her mistakes”. But, said Liubakova, these traits help make her accessible.

Sergei Gapon / Getty Images

Tikhanovskaya in front of the Central Election Commission in Minsk

Tikhanovskaya did not develop this movement on her own. Major roles were played by Kolesnikova, who led the campaign of Viktor Babariko, banker and presidential candidate, before also being arrested and jailed, and Tsepkalo.

The trio joined forces last month after crafting a campaign platform in just 15 minutes and deciding that Tikhanovskaya would be the one to sign up as a candidate.

Their campaign is based on three pillars: free all political prisoners, reverse authoritarian changes to the constitution in 1996, and hold new fair presidential elections within six months.

“I’m not looking for power. I want my husband and kids to come back and fry my chops, ”Tikhanovskaya recently told a crowd to a scorching applause.

It is difficult to know for sure how popular she and Lukashenko are among the population, as there is no independent ballot in Belarus.

But some independent Belarusian media outlets, including major online news sites Tut.by and Onliner.by, have published informal polls that have shown the outgoing authoritarian a meager 3% support. This led to a meme calling the president “Sasha 3%” (Sasha is short for Alexander) that spread on social media. After that, the authorities banned the media from publishing further public inquiries.

But it might be enough to just look down the street to see who is supporting the Belarusians. With their flashy and innovative campaign, Tikhanovskaya and her female partners have succeeded in organizing the largest public gatherings Belarus has seen since its independence in 1991.

“We are all united in solidarity,” Tsepkalo said. “Now we wake up every day and ask ourselves, ‘Will we be put in jail today or not? “”

“We want to raise our children in a free Belarus,” she added.

On Thursday, fearing that Tikhanovskaya would once again assemble a rally of tens of thousands of supporters in Minsk just three days before the big vote, the government announced that the venue for their last planned protest had already been booked for a concert. in honor of Railway Troops Day, a holiday that Tsepkalo says has never been celebrated before.

Undeterred, Tikhanovskaya, Kolesnikova and Tsepkalo made an immediate decision: they announced in a video said on social media that they would attend the government-approved concert.

“We will be there. We will be together,” Tsepkalo said.

Moments after their arrival and as a crowd of their supporters cheered, two DJs controlling the music of the government-approved concert defied the authorities and played “Changes”, the unofficial women’s campaign song. Soviet-era rocker Tsoi’s famous lines echoed through the speakers:

Our hearts yearn for change

Our eyes yearn for change

It’s in our laughter and in our tears

And it beats in our veins

Changes, we yearn for changes

The police took the two men away but not before they push their hands up, forming a fist and a V for victory.

On Friday afternoon, a court in Minsk sentenced the two men to 10 days in prison. ●

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