Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old professor with no political experience, aspires to be the first female president of Belarus. Her candidacy has the support of two other women, Veronika Tsepkalo and María Kolesnikova. Their followers call them “the trio”. In front of them they have the official candidacy of the president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Their common goal is to democratize and modernize Belarus. Her main electoral promises are the holding of democratic elections six months after the start of her term and the release of political prisoners, mainly journalists, activists and bloggers. The three women have joined forces after some opposition candidates were left out of the electoral race.
Another of her electoral strengths is the rapprochement with the European Union, although with no intention of becoming part of it. Tsikhanouskaya in an interview with Lenta, a Russian media, has taken a position against deepening the union with Russia, but clarified: “We want to be independent. We want to find friends and not enemies.” At her rallies she usually speaks in Russian, although another of her maxims is the defense of the promotion of Belarusian culture and language. According to government data from 2009, only 29.4% of citizens can express themselves in this language, with Russian being the most widely used language.
Maria Kolesnikova comes from the candidacy of Viktor Babaryko, she was his campaign manager. Regarding Tsikhanouskaia, she highlights that despite her lack of political experience and of showing her face in public, “she is an extremely brave woman, who has a lot of confidence in herself” and has also “had spectacular growth.”
Veronika Tsepkalo, the other member of the trio, was in the candidacy of her husband, Valery Tsepkalo. Graduated in international relations, Veronika assured in an interview with the Naviny media that the problem of the current president is that he arrived with a great desire to change the country but “now he is away from the problems of the people”, therefore they defend a maximum of two terms for the position. There is currently no limit.
At the beginning of the election campaign, the most popular opposition candidates in the polls were Viktor Babaryko and Valery Tsepkalo. Both were forced to give up the presidential race in these elections. Babaryko, a former Gazprombank banker, is being held at a KGB headquarters (the Belarusian secret services retain the Soviet name) and is accused of fraud and money laundering. His son is also in custody.
Also in prison is Siarhei Tsikhanouski, the candidate’s husband. He intended to run as a candidate, but was out of the presidential race because he was accused of wanting to assault a policeman during a protest. Siarhei is a popular blogger and youtuber in his country.
On the other hand, Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the United States, was removed from the elections because the Central Election Commission rejected about half of the signatures his team had collected. Those that were considered valid were insufficient to be able to present themselves to the presidency. His team appealed to the Supreme Court, but there was no change. He assures that at no time did they tell them why those firms did not work, what was the problem with them. He is currently in Kiev with his children for fear of reprisals.
Tsikhanouskaia had to face the same, he was afraid of having custody of his children taken away from him. These are currently in a country of the European Union. In a televised speech, the candidate stated: “I am aware of what this government is capable of to stay in power. But I am no longer afraid.” In their rallies they attract thousands of people in the different cities they go to, such as the one on July 30, in which 63,000 people attended at the Friendship of the Peoples Park.
The monitoring of these presidential elections even reaches the Belarusian diaspora, which has protested in cities like Paris, New York or Barcelona in favor of democracy. Valery Tsepkalo, husband of Veronika Tsepkalo, explains that “never before have Belarusians abroad protested in the streets.”
Alexander Lukashenko assured in an interview with the Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon that before an election “he is never nervous.” They are the sixth elections for him, the first he won in 1994, 26 years ago.
Despite this, the Belarusian government has scheduled concerts in places where the opposition was scheduled to hold electoral events in the week before the elections, so that they could not take place. Faced with this ban, the trio asked their followers to go to a Lukashenko event, where they chanted slogans against the president. The DJs who were in charge of the music of the event played some of the representative songs of the opposition, such as those of the Russian singer Viktor Tsoi and are currently in jail for it.
One of Lukashenko’s recurring themes is fear of the Maidan. The Maidan was one of the so-called “color revolutions” that affected Ukraine, one of the neighboring countries. In an interview with journalist Dmytri Gordon, he assured that “some are calling for people to occupy the streets on August 9 and 10. (…) we will not allow it.”
The official press also tries to scare the population, one of them even published on its pages: “Are you prepared for someone in your family to die? Be prepared. Someone in your family will die for sure.”
On the other hand, the opposition press has received attacks from the government and the security forces. At some rallies, journalists have been detained or prevented from carrying out their work through intimidation or Internet blocking.
Lukashenko warned the foreign press, among which he told the BBC or Radio Free Europe, that they would be deported from Belarus if they called the population to Maidan and asked his government to do so if necessary.
Even on football fields like Dinamo Minsk’s, anti-Lukashenko chants are heard. For this reason, the authorities have canceled the parties during the weekend of the elections. The national championship did not stop even during the peak of the pandemic, being the only championship in Europe that was not postponed.
Vodka with COVID
Minsk faced with the global pandemic, decided not to confine its population or take measures. At the beginning of the COVID crisis, President Lukashenko said that to cure the virus the best thing was to go for a walk, drink vodka and go to the sauna. As of this past Friday, Belarus declared 68,000 infected and 580 deaths from the coronavirus.
The government’s reaction to the pandemic has awakened Belarusian civil society. As the Belarusian journalist Franak Viačorka recounts, outrage over the management of the disease has been compounded by discontent over Lukashenko’s low wages, immobility after nearly thirty years, and lack of freedom.
On May 9, the Victory Day in Belarus and Russia, the Commemorative Parade was held in Minsk without any restriction or preventive measure. Unlike Russia for example, which postponed the event, Belarus celebrated the 75th anniversary of the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany in the midst of a pandemic. At the event, World War II veterans were exposed to contagion.
On August 3, Belarus arrested 33 Russian mercenaries from the Russian company Wagner whom the authorities initially accused of preparing riots in Minsk. The detainees themselves assured that they were in Belarus in transit, waiting to go to a third country. According to the Russian consul in Minsk, the final destination was a Latin American country, but he did not specify which one.
The Ukrainian intelligence, which was the one that shared the information about these contractors, has requested the extradition of some of the detainees, whom it accuses of war crimes in the Donbas. This conflict zone in eastern Ukraine has been one of the places where Russian mercenaries have fought alongside pro-Russian rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko exchanged views by phone on these arrests last Friday. Moscow is closely watching this electoral process, since Belarus is a very close ally of Russia.
Both countries are part of the State of the Union, a supranational entity that even considered having a common currency. Therefore, Russian citizens can travel to Belarus with a national passport (equivalent to the Spanish ID) and without the need for a visa. They also maintain good commercial relations, most of the Russian energy resources go through Belarus and Moscow leaves it at a good price to its ally.