The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Belarus’s Lukashenko jailed election rivals and mocked women as unfit to lead. Now one is leading the opposition.

A protester holds a sign depicting Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko during a rally this month in Poznan, Poland, against political persecution and calling for a free and fair presidential election in Belarus. (Lukasz Cynalewski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)
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MOSCOW — President Alexander Lukashenko had three main rivals in the presidential election next month. Two were jailed. One was denied registration as a candidate. The top challenger now is a woman — so, to Belarus’s longtime leader, she didn’t really count as a threat.

A female president “would collapse, poor thing,” Lukashenko said on May 29 as he met workers at a tractor factory. The country, he added, “has not matured enough” to vote for a woman.

But the campaign for the Aug. 9 vote may be remembered as the time when Lukashenko’s authoritarian grip — and his out-of-touch attitudes on everything from female leadership to fighting the coronavirus pandemic — began to slip.

Opposition groups have united behind his main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a shy, 37-year-old language teacher. She took up the presidential bid only after her husband, popular vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested two days after announcing he planned to run for president.

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Few expect the election will topple 65-year-old Lukashenko, a former Soviet stalwart who has led Belarus since 1994, when Nelson Mandela, O.J. Simpson and Rwanda were in the headlines.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said on July 14 that Belarus authorities have failed to ensure a fair election, citing “the seemingly arbitrary exclusion of candidates.”

At least 700 opposition supporters and activists, as well as at least 17 journalists, have been detained since May, according to the Belarus human rights group Vyasna.

Rights groups and others also warn that Lukashenko has used extreme means to stay in power. In the past, these have included “manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees,” according a State Department report last year.

Opposition buzzing

Still, there is a new energy among Lukashenko’s long-demoralized critics.

Some of it comes from Tikhanovskaya’s husband, who dubbed Lukashenko a “cockroach” that should be squashed. People began to turn up at rallies waving bedroom slippers, often used to swat the pests.

And some of the opposition buzz is due to Lukashenko, whose glaring missteps over the novel coronavirus have dented his support.

He ridiculed the coronavirus pandemic as “psychosis” and eschewed a lockdown, even as doctors struggled to fight the virus without adequate protective equipment. Lukashenko said that drinking vodka, taking a sauna or working in the fields driving tractors would protect against covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — although he later tried to disavow the comments.

As the election nears, there are fears that Lukashenko will turn to tactics he used in past votes: violently crushing street protests and jailing more opposition figures.

In the end, he may emerge further weakened and tarnished, leaving Belarus more vulnerable to pressure from its powerful ally, Russia, over energy prices and closer political integration.

Tikhanovskaya joined forces with Lukashenko’s other strongest rivals, former banker Viktor Babariko, currently in jail with his son Eduard on fraud charges that he claims are politically motivated; and a former ambassador to the United States, Valery Tsepkalo, founder of a high-tech business park, who was denied registration.

Women lead the fight

The public faces of the opposition are now women: Tikhanovskaya; Babariko’s campaign manager, Maria Kolesnikova; and Tsepkalo’s wife, Veronika.

Lukashenko last month boasted that he personally ordered the arrest of vlogger Tikhanovsky, saying he “gave the signal.”

“Did I do something wrong? I was worried about my country, which I still answer for,” Luka­shenko said at a political meeting, parts of which were aired on state television. “And I will always answer for it, in any capacity.”

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The vlogger Tikhanovsky apparently got under the president’s skin — not just because of the “cockroach” quip. His popular YouTube channel portrayed the struggles of ordinary Belarusans trying to eke out a living.

Tikhanovskaya recently sent her two children, ages 4 and 10, out of the country after receiving anonymous threats. Her campaign promises to release all political prisoners and hold a new election open to all.

“The question is, what kind of country do we live in?” said Veronika Tsepkalo. “We can’t clap. We can’t make a chain of solidarity. We can’t go on a bike ride. We can’t stay silent,” she said, referring to previous protest actions that were dispersed by riot police. “Maybe we won’t be able to breathe soon.

“We want to live in a free state where no one is afraid to speak freely,” she added, “where no one is afraid, where there is the right to free meetings on the street, where you don’t think about what to say because tomorrow you may be behind bars.”

The '3 percent' jabs

A poll in late April by the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus rated Belarusans’ trust in Luka­shenko at around 33 percent. One informal — and unscientific — online poll claimed his support was a mere 3 percent, sparking a wave of graffiti across the country: “Sasha 3%,” referring to Lukashenko, or simply “3%.”

A Minsk man who started selling T-shirts with the slogan “Psycho 3%” was raided by police.

Lukashenko complained about the barbs last month when he met a group of activists protesting plans for a Chinese factory to make lead-acid batteries in the western city of Brest.

“Do you want to believe that the sitting president only has 3 percent? Stop harassing and insulting us, calling me a mustachioed cockroach,” he said, although there was no evidence the group was linked to the graffiti. “I am still the president of this country.”

Political analyst Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Moscow Center said the regime had no trouble handling opposition protests after jailing Babariko and denying Tsepkalo registration.

“The history of authoritarian regimes shows this bitter reality that it’s way more efficient for autocracies to remove opponents from the game early on.” He saw no signs that protests would succeed in toppling Lukashenko.

“My assessment is that there will be street clashes. There will be protests,” Shraibman said. “There will be a crackdown on these protests. I don’t see any evidence of them leading to a power collapse. Protests have to be led. Protests need to be sustainable to be successful.”

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He said the election would leave Lukashenko weakened in negotiations with Russia. Moscow has been pushing Belarus to more closely integrate its economy and policies with Russia. Although Lukashenko is happy to buy cheap Russian natural gas, he has been stalling on integration for years.

“I don’t think Lukashenko, despite having his hands tied, will cave in to Russian pressure in terms of integration, because it’s an issue of power for him, and there’s nothing more important to him than power,” Shraibman said.

Kolesnikova, of the Babariko campaign, said Belarusans know that Lukashenko has been weakened by his loss of support.

“I am counting on the reaction of the … people, who are now fully aware of what is happening and can see the evidence of the weakness of the government. The … people see that we are the majority, that we want change,” she said.

“If we do nothing, then nothing will change,” said lawyer Marina Nikandrina, who joined street protests after the 2010 presidential election, when riot police with black helmets, shields and batons beat up and arrested demonstrators. She later sent her daughter to study in Poland.

But unlike neighboring Ukraine, which saw two successful revolutions in 2004-2005 and 2014, Belarusans won’t have the will to try to topple Lukashenko by force, she said.

Belarusans “are not the people who will fight until blood flows,” she said.

Ilya Kuzniatsou in Minsk contributed to this report.

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