It takes unusual courage to take on Alexander Lukashenko in an election. In 2010, for example, when the president of Belarus was seeking a fourth term of office, a number of his opponents were arrested and charged with organising mass disorder on polling day. But if your spouse has been jailed and your family threatened, the stakes of standing against the man often described as “Europe’s last dictator” must seem unbearably high.
This is the challenge that 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has accepted, ahead of Belarus’s latest exercise in pseudo-democracy this Sunday. With no previous political experience, Ms Tikhanovskaya took over the presidential candidacy of her husband, Sergei, a well-known blogger, in May, after he was ruled out of the race and imprisoned on trumped-up charges. So far, she is knocking it out of the park.
After ensuring the safety of her children by sending them abroad, Ms Tikhanovskaya has turned the election into the biggest challenge to Mr Lukashenko’s autocracy since he took power in 1994. She has one main policy: the holding of proper, free and fair elections within six months. Backed by the supporters of two other barred candidates, she has held rallies that have been among the largest in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her movement has adopted a 1970s freedom song taken from the Polish Solidarity movement. It also has a symbol – a slipper – which stands for the need to stamp out corruption.
For Mr Lukashenko, this is a troubling turn of events. The chances of Ms Tikhanovskaya emerging victorious from Sunday’s stage-managed poll are more or less zero but the massed ranks of singing demonstrators in Minsk, waving mobile phone flashlights, conjure up memories of Ukraine’s anti-corruption Maidan revolution. The rattled president has long pledged that nothing of that kind will ever occur on his watch, but has begun to hint at unspecified constitutional reform.
The new vulnerability of a notoriously insular and authoritarian regime has multiple causes. Mr Lukashenko has scandalised many of his citizens by refusing to impose a lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, advising instead that drinking vodka and going to the sauna would ward off the disease. The Belarusian economy has stagnated for a decade, corroding the government’s reputation among blue-collar workers and in the provinces. Unprecedented domestic turbulence comes as the president’s relations with Moscow have deteriorated after a refusal to form a unified state with Russia. Last week, Mr Lukashenko claimed Russian mercenaries were being sent to Belarus to subvert Sunday’s election.
As a charged campaign reaches its climax, Mr Lukashenko is responding in time-honoured fashion. Anti-riot troops have been told they must not permit street protests. State television has pointedly broadcast images of water cannon and troops practising counter-demonstration measures. But Mr Lukashenko may calculate that, with relations with Vladimir Putin in the deep freeze, he cannot afford to also outrage western opinion by authorising a ferocious crackdown on the growing protest movement.
For the first time in 26 years, Mr Lukashenko does not appear to be fully in control of events in his fiefdom. To that extent, whatever Sunday’s outcome, Ms Tikhanovskaya has already won.