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Updated at 18 ET
In Belarus, a 37-year-old political novice gives Europe’s longest-serving leader a run for his money.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is challenging Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (65) in an unexpectedly controversial election set for August 9.
An English translator and mother of two, Tikhanovskaya, decided to run after her husband, a popular blogger, was jailed in May.
“I do not need power, but my husband is behind bars,” Tikhanovskaya told a giant campaign in the capital Minsk on Thursday. “I’ve had to hide my kids. I’m tired of putting up with it. I’m tired of being silent. I’m tired of being scared.”
A large crowd of followers filled a city park, waving the flashlights on their cell phones as darkness fell. Tikhanovskaya has attracted crowds in cities in Belarus ever since she joined the campaigns of two other opposition candidates, one of whom is in custody and the other who has fled to Russia for his safety.
Belarus – sandwiched between Russia and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – has existed in a vacuum since the fall of the Soviet Union three decades ago. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has survived on energy subsidies from the Kremlin, even while averting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s overtures for closer political and economic integration.
Tikhanovskaya became Lukashenko’s main opponent after her husband Sergei was denied registration as a candidate and jailed in the long run for violating public order and election laws. Sergei Tikhanovsky had gained popularity with his YouTube channel, which took on socio-economic issues ignored by state television.
Amnesty International considers Tikhanovsky a “prisoner of conscience” and has condemned “a growing collapse of human rights” ahead of the August vote. Candidates, their supporters and political activists have all been detained during the election campaign.
“We are deeply concerned about the reports of mass protests and detentions of peaceful activists and journalists,” US Prime Minister Morgan Ortagus said in a tweet released by the US Embassy in Minsk this month. “We think it is incredibly important for the government to create a level playing field for everyone who wants to run in the election.”
The United States has been without an ambassador in Minsk since 2008, when bilateral relations collapsed amid a collapse of the Belarusian opposition.
Now Lukashenko is pursuing rapprochement with Washington as a way to counter pressure from the Kremlin. In February, he received Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk, and President Trump has since nominated a new U.S. ambassador.
Lukashenko, known for his popular jokes, changes slats or praises the West, depending on the occasion. During a visit to a Belarusian special forces unit last week, he compared recent events in the United States with those in Belarus.
“We do not want to resort to using the armed forces, but something can happen. The United States is an example, ”he said, referring to the deployment of U.S. federal agents amid continuing protests in some U.S. cities.
Lukashenko said modern wars begin with street protests: “If there are not enough people here to take part in such revolutions, they will bring them from abroad. These are professional military gangsters who are specially trained, mostly as part of private military companies. “
Five days later, the Belarussian KGB reported to Lukashenko that 33 men working for a Russian private military contractor had been arrested in Minsk. The KGB said the men were part of a team planning to practice unrest before the election and that more than 150 others were still in large numbers. On Thursday, Belarusian investigators opened a criminal case against the Russians – and linked them to Tikhanovskaya’s husband. She dismissed the allegations as “completely impossible”
Putin’s spokesman has said Belarus’s reports are full of “insinuations” and “speculation” and expressed hope that the arrested Russians would be released from their “baseless detention.” He denied that there are private military contractors in Russia.
“We need to remember that it is a long-standing tradition for Lukashenko to use terrorists as librarians,” wrote Andrei Sinitsyn, opinion editor of the Russian online magazine Republic.ru. “After the election that Lukashenko won, these stories became burning, even though opposition politicians were imprisoned anyway.”
The Kremlin is interested in negotiating with a weakened Lukashenko, Sinitsyn said, but his removal as a result of a democratic election – or a revolution – would set a “terrible precedent” for Russia.
Belarusian opposition figures fear that the hunt for Russian mercenaries could be used as a pretext for more draconian measures by the authorities. But this fear did not prevent Tikhanovskaya’s followers from becoming mass in Minsk.
“They are talking about a kind of revolution,” Tikhanovskaya said. “What revolution? Why provoke your own people? We have absolutely no need for warriors, we are peaceful people.”