The campaign for the presidential elections in Belarus, scheduled for the 9th of August, is becoming tenser by the day. Although several of the leading opposition candidates were excluded, the election could represent the first serious challenge to Alexander Lukashenko’s power since he won the country’s first post-independence presidential election in 1994.
Opposition rivals and political prisoners
Lukashenko’s two strongest rivals were removed from the race, Viktor Babariko and Valeri Tsepkalo. Viktor Babariko, a former Chairman of the Management Board of OJSC Belgazprombank, is currently detained on charges of financial crime. Valeri Tsepkalo is founder and former director (2005–2017) of the Belarusian High Technology Park. On the 30th of June, the Central Election Commission (CEC) announced that Tsepkalo didn’t gather 100.000 signatures, which is the minimum required to run in the presidential race. Namely, he submitted 160.000, but CEC recognized only 75.249 signatures as valid. On the 24th of July, after being threatened and fearing arrest, Tsepkalo fled to Russia with his two children.
New face in Belarusian politics
Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya emerged as the Belarusian opposition’s leading presidential candidate. After the arrest of her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, on the 29th of May, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya decided to run in his place. She is a teacher, English translator and mother of two children who only decided to contest the election out of love for her husband and country. She acknowledged that she is standing despite receiving threats and having to take abroad her children due to their own safety.
Svetlana’s husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski is a YouTube vlogger with a large following and influence, his videos gained around 30 million views in a country with about 9.5 million inhabitants. He has been associated with the prominent “Stop the cockroach!” campaign. The 2020 Belarusian protests, nicknamed the “Slippers Revolution” or “Anti-Cockroach Revolution” are a series of ongoing series of street protests against Lukashenko’s governance.
Analysts reacted sceptically to Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya candidature, saying the opposition is too divided to achieve significant success. However, shortly after Tsikhanouskaya registered, she was endorsed by the campaigns of Valeri Tsepkalo and Viktor Babariko. Marija Kolesnikova represents banker and politician Viktor Babariko while Veronica Tsepkalo represents her husband, Valeri Tsepkalo.
On the 19th of July Svetlana, together with Marija Kolesnikova and Veronica Tsepkalo, mobilized 7.500 people for a campaign rally. There was no media attention and the police did not even intervene. On the 30th of July, 63.000 people gathered at a rally in Minsk to support Svetlana. Many describe it as the most massive opposition rally in the former Soviet republic since its independence. Regarding Tsikhanouskaya’s political programme, she is firmly against integration with Russia. During the rally, she said: “Independence is our absolute value, we do not sell it, we do not trade it, we will not even discuss this issue. We need to establish a partnership with Russia on an equal footing.”
She is hesitant to comment on foreign policy issues, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and participation in the war in eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, she has a very clear plan for her “first steps” as president. Those include granting amnesty to political prisoners, creating conditions for free and fair elections and finally scheduling elections within the next six months.
“The most important thing is that all people in Belarus now have a common goal – new, fair elections. One person cannot decide on behalf of 10 million people!” Tsikhanouskaya concluded.