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Updated at 18 ET
In Belarus, a 37-year-old political novice gives Europe’s longest-serving leader a jump 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 two mothers, Tikhanovskaya decided to run after her husband, a popular blogger, was arrested 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 children. I’m tired of coping. I’m tired of being quiet. I’m tired of being scared.”
A huge number of supporters filled a city park and waved the flashlights on their mobile phones when darkness fell. Tikhanovskaya has attracted crowds in cities in Belarus ever since she joined the campaigns with two other opposition candidates, one of whom is in prison for detention, the other who fled to Russia for his safety.
Belarus – which has been sandwiched between Russia and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – has been 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 as he discouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surpasses for closer political and economic integration.
Tikhanovskaya became Lukashenko’s main opponent after her husband Sergei was denied registration as a candidate and imprisoned on charges of violating public order and election laws. Sergei Tikhanovsky had gained popularity with his YouTube channel that addressed socio-economic issues that were ignored by state television.
Amnesty International considers Tikhanovsky a “prisoner of conscience” and has condemned “growing human rights abuses” before 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 the detention of peaceful activists and journalists,” US State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said in a tweet posted by the US Embassy in Minsk this month. “We think it is extremely important for the government to offer equal conditions for everyone who wants to participate in the elections.”
The United States has been without an ambassador in Minsk since 2008, when bilateral relations broke down amid a breakdown of the Belarusian opposition.
Now Lukashenko continues to approach Washington as a way to counter the pressure from the Kremlin. In February, he got Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk, and President Trump has since nominated a new US ambassador.
Lukashenko, known for his popular witticisms, alternates 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 would not like to use the armed forces, however, anything can happen. The United States is an example,” he said, referring to the deployment of US federal agents amid continuing protests in some US cities.
Lukashenko said modern wars begin with street protests: “If there are not enough people here to take part in such revolutions, they will take them from abroad. These are professional military gangs who are specially trained, mostly as part of private military enterprises. “
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 raise concerns before the election, and that more than 150 others were still at large. On Thursday, Belarusian investigators opened a criminal case against the Russians – and linked them to Tikhanovskaya’s husband. She dismissed the allegations as “completely unthinkable”
Putin’s spokesman said Belarus’ reports were full of “insinuations” and “speculation” and expressed hope that the arrested Russians would be released from their “baseless prison.” He denied that there are private military contractors in Russia.
“We must remember that it is a long-standing tradition of Lukashenko to use terrorists as bogeymen,” wrote Andrei Sinitsyn, editor-in-chief of the Russian online magazine Republic.ru. “After the election, which Lukashenko won, these stories fused, even though opposition politicians were still imprisoned.
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 are afraid that the hunt for Russian mercenaries could be used as a pretext for more draconian measures by the authorities. But this fear did not stop Tikhanovskaya’s followers from becoming masses in Minsk.
“They are talking about some kind of revolution,” Tikhanovskaya said. “What revolution? Why provoke your own people? We have absolutely no need for warriors, we are peaceful people.”