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Updated at 18:00 ET
In Belarus, a 37-year-old political novice is giving money to Europe’s oldest leaders.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is challenging Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, 65, in an unexpected election on 9 August.
Tikhanovskaya, an English translator and mother of two, decided to flee after her husband, a popular blogger, was jailed in May.
“I do not need power, but my husband is behind bars,” Tikhanovskaya said Thursday at a giant campaign rally in the capital Minsk. “I’ve had to hide my kids. I’m tired of hanging out with her. I’m tired of shutting up. I’m tired of being scared.”
A huge crowd of supporters filled a city park, waving flashlights at cell phones as darkness fell. Tikhanovskaya has been attracting crowds to Belarusian villages since joining the campaigns of two other opposition candidates, one of whom is in pretrial detention, the other who has fled to Russia for his safety.
Belarus (between Russia and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia) has existed in a vacuum since the fall of the Soviet Union three decades ago. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has survived Kremlin energy aid, even maintaining the advances of Russian President Vladimir Putin for closer political and economic integration.
Tikhanovskaya became Lukashenko’s main opponent after her husband Sergei was denied registration as a candidate and jailed on charges of violating electoral and public order laws. Sergei Tikhanovsky had gained popularity with his YouTube channel which took on socioeconomic issues ignored by state television.
Amnesty International considers Tikhanovsky a “prisoner of conscience” and has condemned “a growing human rights struggle” ahead of the August vote. Candidates, their supporters and political activists have faced arrest during the election campaign.
“We are deeply concerned about reports of mass protests and arrests of peaceful activists and journalists,” U.S. State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said in a tweet posted by the U.S. embassy in Minsk this month. . “We think it’s incredibly important for the government to provide conditions of play for everyone who wants to run in the election.”
The United States has been without an ambassador to Minsk since 2008, when bilateral relations broke down amid crackdown on Belarusian opposition.
Now Lukashenko is pursuing rapprochement with Washington as a way to combat Kremlin pressure. In February, he received Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk and President Trump has since appointed a new US ambassador.
Lukashenko, known for his popular wit, alternately lambas or praises the West, depending on the occasion. During a visit to the Belarusian special forces unit last week, he compared recent events in the United States with those in Belarus.
“We would not want to resort to the use of the armed forces, however, anything can happen. The United States is a case,” he said, referring to the deployment of U.S. federal agents amid continued protests in some cities. of the United States.
Lukashenko said modern wars begin with street protests: “If there aren’t enough people here to take part in these revolutions, they will be brought in from abroad. These are professional military mobsters who specialize in their training, especially in private military companies “.
Five days later, the Belarusian KGB informed Lukashenko that 33 men working for a Russian military contractor had been detained in Minsk. The KGB said the men were part of a team that plans to foment unrest ahead of the election, and that more than 150 people were still at large. Belarusian investigators opened a criminal case against the Russians on Thursday and linked them to Tikhanovskaya’s husband. He dismissed the allegations as “completely improvisable”
Putin’s spokesman said Belarus’s reports were full of “hints” and “speculation” and expressed hope that the arrested Russians would be released from their “baseless detention”. He denied that there were private military contractors in Russia.
“We must remember that it is a traditional tradition of Lukashenko to use terrorists as a bogey,” wrote Andrei Sinitsyn, opinion editor of the Russian online magazine Republic.ru. “After the election, which Lukashenko won, these stories disappeared, even though opposition politicians were imprisoned anyway.”
The Kremlin is interested in negotiating with a weakened Lukashenko, Sinitsyn said, but his withdrawal as a result of a democratic election – or a revolution – would set a “terrible precedent” for Russia.
Belarusian opposition figures fear 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 supporters from becoming en masse in Minsk.
“They talk about some kind of revolution,” Tikhanovskaya said. “What revolution? Why provoke your own people? We have absolutely no need for fighters, we are peaceful people.”