Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has leapt from being a stay-at-home mum to being dubbed one of the most powerful women in Belarus.
Her rise to prominence has been as quick as it has been unlikely.
The 37-year-old was unknown at the end of May. But that all changed when she entered the race to be the country’s next president.
She was pushed to act after her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky — a popular blogger — was jailed and disqualified from running.
Tikhanovskaya is challenging Belarus’ long-time incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, who has been the only president the country has ever known.
In power for 26 years, he has been dubbed Europe’s last dictator. Since 1994, elections have tended to be a formality, actively controlled and suppressed, according to human rights organisations.
Lukashenko has always been credited with more than 70 per cent of the votes in presidential elections, but this year could be different.
Tikhanovskaya, a former translator and a stay-at-home mum for the last ten years, appears to be threatening Lukashenko’s power like no one has managed before.
She has drawn thousands of people to mass rallies around the country – a country where many people traditionally are afraid to express dissatisfaction with the government due to the repressive regime with a known history of jailing political opponents and violating human rights.
‘Not a politician’
But speaking exclusively to Euronews ahead of the August 9 vote, Tikhanovskaya said she is not a politician.
She said the goal of the opposition — she has been joined by women linked to two other barred candidates, Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo — was to remove Lukashenko, free political prisoners, return to the Belarussian constitution before 1996 and have free elections within six months, where all the jailed opposition candidates can run.
She explains that people are unhappy with Lukashenko because he has not been able to develop the economy and is violating their freedoms. According to the Ministry of Finance, Belarus’ GDP fell from around €59.2 billion in 2010 to €45.6 billion in 2019, and the organisation Freedom House writes that “Belarus is an authoritarian state in which elections are openly orchestrated, and civil liberties are tightly restricted”.
More than anything, it was Lukashenko’s mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak that made people furious, she says. First, he denied the existence of the virus. Later, he said that people could fight it by drinking vodka, driving tractors, and visiting the sauna. But the real anger came when Lukashenko blamed the victims who were dying, said Tikhanovskaya, who explains that the pandemic made it clear for anyone that Lukashenko is only interested in himself.
“He does not have support anymore. Even if he cheats, I am sure that people will not let him rule for another term,” said Tikhanovskaya, who out of fear has sent her children to the EU, because the Belarusian authorities have previously threatened critics with taking away their children.
According to Tikhanovskaya, change is now coming to Belarus. There have also been demonstrations in Belarus during previous presidential campaigns but Tikhanovskaya said this time is different, pointing to the large crowds that the opposition has been able to gather in many cities, crowds much bigger than anything seen since Lukashenko came to power in the 90s. She hopes that Lukashenko will either step down himself or that the elections, against all the odds, will be free and fair.
The alternative is demonstrations, which she wants to avoid.
“You can’t deny that our people want change,” she said. “It might not happen in a couple of days, maybe in September, October, or November, but our people do not want this president anymore.
“We strictly do not want any demonstrations, because our police will beat our people. We want fair elections, and if not, we will defend our votes legally,” she added, explaining that means contesting the result with the election commission.
What if it turns violent?
Tikhanovskaya stresses that she does not endorse demonstrations or violence. However, Lukashenko has shown before, such as during the 2010 Presidential election, that he is willing to use force to shut down protests. In recent days, state TV has aired footage of Lukashenko inspecting riot equipment, and the longtime leader has stated that “you and I should be concerned that we do not allow the situation in our country to destabilise”.
The question is what Tikhanovskaya will do as the leader of the opposition if the election is not free and fair.
“If people after unfair elections decide that they want to defend their votes by going out on the streets, which is legal according to the constitution, I cannot forbid them to do so. I ask the police and the army not to shoot on peaceful people. However, we are not calling on people to go to the streets. We want to use legal ways.
“I do not want people to be shot, and I do not want it myself, but this will be the people’s decision, not mine. I cannot decide for everyone, because every person is a leader and they can do whatever they want.
“However, going out on the street to demonstrate is also a legal way to defend one’s vote, according to the constitution, while it might not work like that in our country.”
Asked what she will do if the government responds with violence, she says: “I don’t want to even think about this now. I believe, and I’m sure, that this year will be different. That this year, in a couple of days, our central commission will count properly. Because they see the mood of people and realise how it can end.
“I am absolutely against violence,” she insisted before adding that if people decide to go out on the streets to demonstrate: “I will be beside them. Not in front of them, because that is not my place, I do not want this to happen, but if they decide. And if there will be a lot of people and not 15…Of course, I will be beside them.”
‘Change will come now’
Tikhanovskaya said she was initially against her husband’s campaign out of fear of what could happen.
But now she is leading the opposition with two other women: Maria Kolesnikova, the former head of Viktor Babariko’s campaign, and Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of Valery Tsepkalo.
“My husband went around the country and he is so strong and so brave that he was not afraid to say the truth about the bureaucracy.,” said Tikhanovskaya.
“About that we have no right to say or argue, we don’t have rights at all and he started to talk about this openly and people started to raise their head.
“We need respect from our government and this government will never respect us because for more than 20 years it did not. They will never think about our people as people or unity, we just were working power for them.
“Change will come now.”