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Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya), center, makes a campaign stop on August 4, 2020

‘I didn’t think it was all so fragile’ Inside the breakout opposition campaign that turned the Belarusian presidential election on its head

Source: Meduza
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya), center, makes a campaign stop on August 4, 2020
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya), center, makes a campaign stop on August 4, 2020
Maxim S. for Meduza

The most unexpected development in this year’s unusually contested presidential race in Belarus has been the Svetlana Tikhanovskaya campaign. A housewife without political ambitions until just months ago, she’s mounted a formidable challenge to Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka), threatening his 26-year reign. Even in small towns far removed from Belarusian politics, Tikhanovskaya’s speeches at rallies draw thousands of people. At Meduza’s request, Belarusian journalist Yan Avseyushkin spent several days with the Tikhanovskaya campaign to try to understand how this team has succeeded where so many others failed. 

Rallies outside the capital

At a park in Baranovichi, about 90 miles southwest of Minsk, campaigning for president is a bit different than in the Belarusian capital. For one thing, nobody disables local mobile Internet services during the rally. Also, the police officers checking bags and admitting audience members are delicate and polite. When the headliners — three women — take the stage, they’re greeted like rockstars.

There’s Maria Kolesnikova (Maryia Kalesnikava), representing Victor Babariko (Viktar Babaryka), whose presidential candidacy ended in criminal charges and arrest. Then there’s Veronika Tsepkalo (Veronica Tsapkala), the wife of another former candidate who recently fled the country. And, finally, there’s Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition’s frontrunner in Sunday’s election.

“I wasn’t seeking the presidency. I was an ordinary mother and wife,” Tikhanovskaya tells the crowd. “But now I find myself here and I’ve stayed this course only with your help because I’ve felt the responsibility. I was very hesitant to begin this journey. You recall what I was like at first. Day after day, I see people coming to support me. I feel that I haven’t earned to be here…”

“You’ve earned it!” someone in the audience shouts.

It’s Paratroopers’ Day in Belarus — a rowdy celebration that attracts soldiers to public places for revelry and summer fun. In the sea of people gathered to hear Tikhanovskaya speak, many are wearing the berets and striped shirts of the Airborne Troops. An elderly man says he’s “fucking done with Lukashenko” and two young parents pushing a stroller say Tikhanovskaya can bring about a better future for their baby by working “as a symbol, not a politician.”

After Tikhanovskaya, her two costars take turns at the microphone. Maria Kolesnikova, a professional flutist, gives an emotional address about the Lukashenko regime’s thuggish behavior. Veronika Tsepkalo, who previously worked as a manager at a major corporation, breaks down the authorities’ failures over the years, emphasizing numbers and facts.

When the speeches are done, supporters mob Tikhanovskaya as she leaves, offering her gifts and notes and begging for selfies. Eventually, her security guards deliver her to a vehicle beyond the crowd that takes her away.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at a rally in Baranovichi on August 2, 2020
Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s rally in Baranovichi would prove to be one of the last public events her campaign could manage in the race. On the way to the next scheduled demonstration, her team discovered that somebody slashed the tires on one of their cars. The authorities later detained the campaign’s entire motorcade, demanding to review everyone’s documents. Not far from the inspection, a group of riot cops guarded a gassed and ready-to-go police van. 

At squares in Slutsk and Salihorsk, where the campaign had permits to stage events, repair work suddenly got underway and the police rounded up anyone who came for a rally.

Tikhanovskaya’s coalition had a major concert planned in Minsk on August 6, but it never happened. It would have been the campaign’s first gathering in the capital since July 30, when more than 60,000 people assembled for the biggest political rally in a decade. Though Tikhanovskaya notified the city about the concert weeks earlier, the authorities decided at the last minute to stage another event at the same location. The other fives spots in Minsk where campaign rallies are permitted were all mysteriously unavailable. 

A country for life 

What has become one of the most significant opposition campaigns in Belarusian history started out as a YouTube channel called “Country for Life” launched by an advertiser named Sergey Tikhanovsky (Siarhei Tsikhanouski). For years, he ran a successful ad agency in Moscow. He moved back to Belarus in 2017, when the business fell on hard times, and bought an old mansion in a town outside Dobruš, hoping to renovate the building and open a hotel. Instead, Tikhanovsky found himself ensnared in red tape and unable to finish the project. In the spring, last year, he launched a YouTube channel to document problems facing small businesses in Belarus.

Tikhanovsky gradually expanded the themes he discussed on his show, going to small towns outside the big cities to record open mics where locals shared their thoughts about unemployment, low wages, and problems with the country’s bureaucracy.

Before long, “Country for Life” became politicized and Tikhanovsky started interviewing opposition activists. He grew particularly close to Nikolai Statkevich (Mikola Statkevich), President Lukashenko’s long-time critic and adversary. Tikhanovsky shifted his focus from the purely economic issues that interested his non-metropolitan audience to questions about free elections and political persecution. 

It was Statkevich who convinced Tikhanovsky to join an action group that would register dozens of “protest candidates” in this year’s Belarusian presidential race. In March 2020, Tikhanovsky agreed to become one of these candidates. The idea here was to use the election’s official campaigning period to picket legally, thereby circumventing the usual restrictions on public assemblies. When Tikhanovsky’s visibility skyrocketed, he decided to run independently. 

Though Tikhanovsky collected all the needed signatures and filed all the required paperwork to run for president, election officials rejected his candidacy on the grounds that he didn’t submit the documents himself, which is not legally necessary. Instead, quite surprisingly, the election commission later registered his wife, Svetlana.

There are plenty of theories about why Belarusian election officials agreed to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s presidential candidacy, including conspiratorial speculation that she’s a KGB project intended to derail the opposition. The most widely accepted interpretation, however, is that the authorities simply underestimated her. After all, how much damage could one housewife do?

Tikhanovskaya may not have planned on running for office, but her husband had assembled a massive following while traveling the country as a blogger. When her candidacy became official, Sergey Tikhanovsky’s supporters and volunteers provided the logistical help, lodgings, and money needed to fuel her campaign. 

One of these early contributors was Maria Moroz (Maryja Maroz), who now serves as Tikhanovskaya’s campaign manager. She and her husband, both small-business owners, have been fans of “Country for Life” since its launch on YouTube. When Tikhanovsky announced the formation of an election action group, Moroz decided to get involved.

It was already Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign by the time Moroz and her husband started helping with the signatures drive in Minsk. People lined up for more than half a mile to endorse her candidacy. 

Tikhanovsky spent the first two weeks of May in jail for staging supposedly illegal public assemblies by meeting with his YouTube subscribers. He was released early and immediately got to work campaigning for his wife. On May 29, however, he was arrested again for supposedly attacking a police officer. The authorities later charged him with organizing mass unrest. “I started shaking. I was shivering,” says Moroz, recalling the news. 

Sergey Tikhanovsky at an opposition rally in Minsk on May 24, 2020
Natalia Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya after being registered as a presidential candidate in Minsk on July 14, 2020
Tatiana Zenkovich / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

The campaign continued without Tikhanovsky, thanks to the group’s self-organization, which relied heavily on local chat rooms and channels hosted on the messaging app Telegram. The Belarusian authorities have been especially brutal to the men and women who manage these sub-communities, arresting some and forcing others into exile.

Tikhanovskaya was totally absent from the campaign initially while recovering from the shock of her husband’s second arrest. “I was in a kind of stupor,” she told Meduza. “I didn’t give any instructions. For a week, I didn’t know who was doing what or where. You can imagine my state. Everyone acted on their own.”

Maria Moroz says Tikhanovsky wasn’t serious about collecting signatures at first, but organizers decided to pursue the endorsements in earnest after seeing how strong the public’s interest was in his candidacy. As the registration deadline neared, police arrested more and more coordinators from the action group, complicating the collection of endorsements. Moroz says she and her husband eventually realized that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was the only one left who could still apply to run for the presidency. 

When submitting her candidacy documents, Tikhanovskaya says she received an anonymous phone call threatening to take away her two children. In a confusing YouTube video released shortly thereafter, she said the menacing call gave her second thoughts about running for president. Tikhanovskaya now says this is the only time during the race that anyone has tried to pressure her directly. Her four-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son are now with their grandmother, somewhere in the European Union

After Tikhanovskaya was granted a spot on the ballot, Moroz and other activists started reaching out to representatives from Belarus’s old opposition. Roughly a dozen figures from various political parties joined the campaign as official proxies and many other oppositionists started working with Tikhanovskaya’s disorganized headquarters. 

Enter the triumvirate 

The key moment in Tikhanovskaya’s presidential bid is when she joined forces with the campaigns of two popular candidates whom election officials refused to register: now-jailed former Belgazprombank chairman Victor Babariko (Viktar Babaryka) and Valery Tsepkalo (Valeryy Tsapkala), a former diplomat and ex-director of the Belarus Hi-Tech Park, who fled the country to escape arrest. Two young women now represent these campaigns: Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo. 

Not everyone welcomed the idea of cooperating with Tikhanovskaya, but the first rallies staged by this “triumvirate,” as the women call themselves, were a clear success. 

Left to right: Veronika Tsepkalo, Maria Kolesnikova, and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Salihorsk on August 4, 2020
Maxim S. for Meduza

Maria Moroz says the race’s unusual conditions have enabled solidarity where it was previously unthinkable. Opposition politicians and political parties started backing Tikhanovskaya and sharing their platforms and legislative initiatives with her. In a sense, the authorities made it all possible. This coordination couldn’t have happened if Tikhanovsky or Babariko weren’t in jail and Tsepkalo hadn’t been driven out of the country, Moroz told Meduza.

Despite all this goodwill, the three campaigns haven’t really merged, says Anton Rodnenkov (Anton Radnionka), a member of Victor Babariko’s team. What divides the campaigns is less ideological than organizational, he says: “We’ve got fine-tuned business procedures. We roll like a bullet train. They arrested our candidate. We submitted the signatures and they didn’t register him, but we’re still on the job. If they come for me, somebody else will take my place.”

Moroz says the Tikhanovskaya campaign might be less organized, but that’s because her volunteers have had it rough. “We told them [on Babariko’s team] that they haven’t dealt with what we’ve faced. That it’s scary for us just to administer a chat group with 30 people because they’re arresting us [for that]. Admins have left the country because of this,” Moroz says.

A member of the Tsepkalo campaign told Meduza that he and his colleagues have often served as “intermediaries” in the race, helping to “smooth out misunderstandings” between the corporatized Babariko campaign and the more spontaneous, less professional Tikhanovskaya campaign. “We’re different, but we don’t disagree about any of the key principles. Whether you’re talking about a small-business owner or an I.T. manager, Belarusians want the same thing.”

Since joining forces, the following division of labor has emerged: Babariko’s people organize speeches by candidates and campaign proxies, Tsepkalo’s headquarters focuses on campaign publicity, and Tikhanovskaya’s volunteers tailor the campaign materials for her audience.

“We’re generating different content for different audiences, which is perfectly normal. Everyone is working for their own audience, accenting what matters most to them. Our candidate is Babariko, but Tikhanovskaya has promised to release the political prisoners and hold free elections, so we’re explaining to our audience why they should vote for her,” says Anton Rodnenkov.

The Belarusian authorities and other critics often claim that spin doctors are responsible for Tikhanovskaya’s entire candidacy. As if to corroborate this theory, the police even arrested political strategist Vitali Shkliarov (who’s worked election campaigns in the U.S., Russia, and Germany) amid rumors that he was working with Tikhanovskaya. (Officially, he’s been charged with disturbing the peace.) Tikhanovskaya and Moroz say they’ve never worked with Shkliarov.

Rodnenkov says it’s been eye-opening to witness the state’s desperation in the race. “The regime is buying more police vans and propping up the cops and the KGB, but we see decent people assembling peacefully and it’s a threat to the authoritarian regime. I didn’t think it was all so fragile,” says Rodnenkov.

How it all ends

The Belarusian opposition has no illusions about its chances in the election, which concludes on Sunday, August 9. Representatives from all campaigns say the results will be falsified. In fact, independent observers have already reported irregularly high turnout in early voting that began on August 4. Tikhanovskaya says she fears the authorities might try to provoke her supporters into violence, though police have taken responsibility for public safety at pickets since the arrest of 33 Russian nationals in Minsk.

In news reports, the state media has suggested that Sergey Tikhanovsky and Nikolai Statkevich are suspected of ties to the alleged Russian mercenaries now in custody. After the arrests, investigators added “plotting to incite riots” to the charges against Tikhanovsky. 

Speaking before tens of thousands of supporters on July 30 in Minsk, Tikhanovskaya responded to the international scandal and new charges against her husband. “This morning, senior officials looked me in the eye and told me that they value human life above all else. And, for a second, I believed it. But when I learned that they’d reclassified the case against [Tikhanovsky] and tied him to the mercenaries… You know what, guys? You told me that you care about human fate and, two hours later, you’re crushing the fate not of one person but of all political prisoners and everyone in their families. You’re crushing the people’s fate.”

At Tikhanovskaya’s rally in Minsk on July 30, 2020
Maxim S. for Meduza

To resist election falsification peacefully, the opposition is relying chiefly on the “Golos” observation platform, where every voter can register online, indicate their local polling station, and log the candidate for whom they’re voting. On election day, participants must send a photograph of their completed ballot to verify the choice they logged in the system. The process sounds tedious, but roughly 850,000 people — more than 12 percent of Belarus’s 6.8 million voters — had registered by August 7.

“We will fight peacefully for the election results if they’re falsified. If we can’t do anything, regular life will go on. If Belarusians agree to live in slavery, that’s their choice. There’s nothing more I can do,” Tikhanovskaya told Meduza

Though President Lukashenko and the country’s security apparatus have repeated throughout the campaign that they won’t allow a Ukrainian-style revolution in the election’s aftermath, conversations with Tikhanovskaya’s staff suggest that a “Belarusian Maidan” is the furthest thing from their minds. “If we fail [to win], they’ll pulverize us,” one campaign member said.

Tikhanovskaya’s expectations, meanwhile, are less cataclysmic. “First of all, we will succeed,” she says. “Second, if we fail, why would they need to pulverize us? We’re running an election campaign, we’re not offending anyone, and we’re just saying what we think. We all understand what kind of country this is and we want to change it all.” 

Story by Yan Avseyushkin, reporting from Minsk, edited by Pytor Lokhov

Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock

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