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‘This is a turning point in Belarusian history’ Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on how her presidential campaign is taking on Lukashenko

Source: Meduza
Sergey Grits / AP / Scanpix / LETA

As Belarus approaches its presidential elections on August 9, the 2020 race has already been deemed the dirtiest in the country’s history: the authorities arrested alternative candidate Viktor Babariko (Viktar Babaryka) and opposition leader Sergey Tikhanovsky (Syarhey Tsikhanouski), while another would-be candidate, veteran politician Valery Tsepkalo (Valeryy Tsapkala), recently fled to Russia with his children. In response, the Belarusian opposition united around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya), who decided to run in the presidential elections in place of her husband. Now, Tikhanovskaya has found herself heading up a vibrant and inspiring campaign. Meduza summarizes Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s conversation with our special correspondent Svetlana Reyter.

Please note: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya agreed to answer some questions from Meduza, but only in written form. You can read the original Q&A with our special correspondent Svetlana Reyter in Russian here.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) has been in power for 26 consecutive years. And in that time, Belarus has never seen elections that were considered free or fair. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Belarusian citizens signed up to support alternative candidates ahead of this year’s presidential campaign. When Lukahsenko’s main competitors were banned from registering as candidates, protesters took to the streets. Now, the Belarusian opposition has pinned their hopes on Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the only opposition candidate allowed to run for president. 

As the new leader of the united opposition, Tikhanovskaya says her campaign strategy involves a three step plan. First off, her team is encouraging voters to avoid early voting and come to the polls “closer to evening on the main voting day” — they’re also telling supporters to “wear a white bracelet,” as a symbol of “honesty and purity.”

Second, they’re pushing for independent election observers to try and get accredited to monitor the vote, even if their efforts are in vain: “None of our independent observers will be allowed,” Tikhanovskaya explains. “And when you’re not allowed, stand outside the polling station and live-stream [...] This is a very serious violation and evidence that the elections are dishonest and fake.”

Finally, “Be prepared to defend your vote and our victory. By all peaceful and legal means,” she adds.

Tikhnovskaya’s motivation for entering the presidential race is personal: she threw her name in after the arrest of her husband, popular opposition blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky, who has now been in jail since late May. “My husband is in a pretrial detention center. And he’s not alone. The number of political prisoners is growing by the day,” Tikhanovskaya tells Meduza. “They’re grabbing people in the streets. Conditions there [in detention] are torturous, [there are] a huge number of violations of detention conditions.” 

“I was forced to take my children out of the country. After receiving a phone call that threatened their safety, I understood this was a necessity if I wanted to continue the fight,” she continues, lamenting the fact that she had to take these kinds of measures to protect her family “in the twenty-first century, in the center of Europe.”

The crackdown ahead of the presidential vote has been a clear signal that Lukashenko isn’t planning on moving aside; as Tikhanovskaya points out, the Belarusian president has explicitly said “I won’t give you the country.” That said, she also fears that he is “willing to sell everything for the sake of his own power, including the country’s independence.”

A rally in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Babruysk (eastern Belarus) on July 25, 2020
Nataliya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Lukashenko has insisted that Belarus will never fully unify with Russia, despite the fact that past moves towards tighter integration have provoked domestic fears. In the meantime, relations between Minsk and Moscow have cooled considerably since the beginning of this year, after the two countries failed to reach a new gas transport agreement, leading to a temporary shut-off beginning on January 1, 2020. 

Tikhanovskaya makes it clear that she sees no need for further integration with Russia. “Independence is our absolute value, we aren’t selling it, we aren’t trading it, we won’t even discuss this question,” she underscores. “We must create a partnership on equal footing, and not dependence on the ‘needles’ of gas or credit.” 

“Of course, the Belarusian economy depends on the Russian one. This is a result of the country’s mismanagement,” Tikhanovskaya continues. “Reducing dependence requires an efficient economy. Over the past 20 years, even what used to work has collapsed [...] That’s why the entire nation has already rallied, since we all have one goal — to bring about change.”

Tikhanovskaya remains hesitant about commenting on foreign policy questions, including ones about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine (“I’m categorically against war,” she says). 

“On top of the fact that I’m not a politician, I see my main goal as the unification of all forces for resolving a main task — the change of power and holding fair elections,” she says, explaining that this will give Belarusians the chance to elect new politicians with “defined views and programs.” That said, she does believe that holding free and fair elections could open the door for further cooperation with the West. 

Similarly, while she is personally in favor of the “revival and development of Belarusian language and culture,” she believes that questions about the status of the Russian language in the “new Belarus” should also be left up to “a new parliament, elected in fair and just elections.”

On the other hand, she has a very clear plan for her “first steps” as president: 1. Freeing all political and economic prisoners, 2. Establishing conditions for fair elections, and 3. Holding fair presidential elections “with the participation of all candidates, including those who are now behind bars or banned from participation.”

“The most important thing is that all honest people in Belarus now have a common goal — new, fair elections,” she says. “One person can’t decide for 10 million people.” 

A rally in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Gomel on July 26, 2020

With the presidential elections around the corner, Tikhanovskaya is hoping that she and her supporters will be able to effectively lobby election officials and thereby prevent the falsification of votes.

“It all depends on the atmosphere, participation, and number of people, who are protesting against falsification. There are a lot of us. And we are all asking the [election] commission not to commit crimes, not to replace the people’s choice,” she explains. “The members of the commission are just people like me and you, they’re ordinary teachers, doctors, company workers. Now is a very cool [time], possibly even a turning point in the history of the country, when the choice between [your] conscience and a 100 ruble bonus is extremely important.” 

“We have to understand that stealing a vote is the same crime as stealing money from [someone’s] pocket,” Tikhanovskaya emphasizes. “Even worse, it means stealing our children’s future.” 

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Interview by Svetlana Reyter 

Summary by Eilish Hart 

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