Belarus election: How a homemaker took on Europe’s longest-serving dictator

One of Europe’s last remaining dictators held onto power after facing his greatest political challenge in decades — and rigged an election to do so.

Alexander Lukashenko has served as Belarus’s president since 1994, when he won the presidency in the country’s last national democratic election since gaining independence from the Soviet Union. That’s because Lukashenko has remained in power ever since thanks to a combination of brutal repression and rigged elections. He’s now Europe’s longest-serving leader.

But after 26 years, many Belarusians have had enough of Lukashenko. Hundreds of thousands of people have rallied for weeks against him in the largest protests of the country’s post-Soviet history.

A government-backed poll from April found only a third of Belarusians trusted him — one of the lowest ratings of his rule. While good polling is hard to come by in Belarus, that one made sense: The dictator both minimized and mishandled his nation’s coronavirus outbreak, oversaw a collapsing economy, and struggled to keep an encroaching Russia at bay.

With such dismal approval ratings, most experts believe Lukashenko would’ve lost a free and fair vote. Which is why Lukashenko did everything in his power to make sure Sunday’s election was anything but free and fair.

And sure enough, Lukashenko won Sunday’s election in a landslide, receiving over 80 percent of the vote. “I don’t know who voted for him, how could he get 80 percent?” a Belarusian named Dmitri, who wouldn’t divulge his last name for security reasons, told the New York Times on Sunday.

His “victory” came down to a tried-and-true autocratic method: brutality. “That [was] the strategy for Lukashenko for this election,” said Ryhor Astapenia, a Belarus expert at the Chatham House think tank in Britain. “No sweeteners, only repression.”

The 65-year-old former collective farm director jailed two of the three top opposition candidates and barred the third from running; he also detained journalists and even alleged Russian mercenaries the regime claimed were trying to disrupt the election prior to the vote.

But his tactics didn’t quell people’s aspirations for democracy. It lit them on fire thanks in part to the efforts of one determined stay-at-home mom — who just had to flee the country for the safety of her children.

The homemaker versus the dictator

One of Lukashenko’s main opponents in this year’s election was Sergei Tikhanovsky, a famous YouTuber who made his name highlighting Belarus’s many problems. Two days after he announced his candidacy for president, he was arrested by the regime on charges of violating public order and election laws.

That might’ve been the end of the story. But it wasn’t: That’s because his wife, a 37-year-old former English translator turned homemaker named Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, stepped in to run for president instead.

She proved wildly successful, coalescing a nationwide movement to defeat the longtime leader and then hold actually fair elections. That she did so despite having no political experience, acknowledging she didn’t want to be president, and reminding crowds she’d prefer to be making cutlets for her children made her rise all the more surprising.

That energy persisted even after the election results were announced Sunday. The regime-run election commission said the challenger only received about 10 percent of the vote, far less than the 80 percent she garnered in some unbiased exit polls. Thousands poured into the streets of Minsk, Belarus’s capital, on Sunday to protest the election’s results.

Demonstrators have been met with tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets shot by regime forces, even though observers on the scene have yet to report one instance of violence by anti-Lukashenko protesters. Reports indicate at least one protester has died.

Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group, says they know of about 140 people among thousands detained by authorities while many more sustained injuries. The Trump administration on Monday proclaimed support for the democratic movement.

Tikhanovskaya made clear she rejected the regime-announced results. “I will believe my own eyes — the majority was for us,” she said during a Monday press conference in Minsk. “The authorities should think about how to peacefully hand over power to us,” she continued. “I consider myself the winner of this election.”

Former candidate in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election Svetlana Tikhanovskaya during a press conference on the election results on August 10, 2020.
Natalia Fedosenko/TASS/Getty Images

But the next day, state-run media showed a video of Tikhanovskaya reading a statement calling for an end to protests. Internet sleuths believe the couch from which she read the statement was the same one in Belarus’s election commission office. (Her team had said the opposition leader couldn’t be reached on Monday after she visited that office.) If true, it could signal Tikhanovskaya was forced to call for an end to anti-Lukashenko demonstrations by the regime.

She has since fled to Lithuania, according to that country’s foreign minister, and it’s unclear how long she’ll be there or what, exactly, she’ll do.

In the meantime, the Tikhanovskaya-led opposition aims for the pressure to stay on the dictator long term, hoping to sustain a historic call for change. Some believe it could work. “This is the beginning of the end of his era,” Valiantsin Stefanovic, Viasna’s deputy chairman, told me. “This is a new reality for him, because nobody loves him anymore. People want to be free.”

Others don’t believe the remarkable scenes of the past few weeks mean Belarus has moved much closer to a post-Lukashenko future. “There’s definitely something different about this now,” said Matthew Rojansky, an expert on Eastern Europe at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank in Washington, “but that doesn’t mean this is the breakthrough moment.”

Which means, depressingly enough, Lukashenko most likely will survive the greatest threat yet to his rule — though he won’t come out of it completely unscathed.

How Lukashenko saw his control slip

When Lukashenko became Belarus’s president in 1994 — after receiving 80 percent of the vote in Belarus’s last fair election — he entered office with a staunch anti-corruption message. His right-wing populism resonated with citizens seeking to improve their lives after the fall of the Soviet Union and who blamed the nation’s woes on its sclerotic and incompetent run by the communist-era establishment.

Lukashenko promised to save Belarus. He would tax the rich, steer the economy in the right direction, and root out the corruption which he claimed, “like an all-devouring octopus has ensnared all government organs with its tentacles.”

But, over the years, Lukashenko became the exact enemy he set out to fight. “He moved from good governance to embracing and not denying iron-fistedness,” said Rojansky. Namely, he resisted needed economic reforms, stayed cozy with Russia, and cracked down on dissenters.

As Human Rights Watch noted in 2019, “Belarus continued to harass and pressure civil society activists and independent media,” including denying journalists entry to official events and arresting peaceful protesters. It’s also widely believed that Lukashenko ordered the kidnappings and killings of at least four political opponents. For those and other reasons, opposition figures boycotted or rarely entered recent elections to dethrone the autocrat.

Despite all that, Lukashenko maintained a semblance of popularity because the economy didn’t nosedive on his watch. That minimal success had less to do with Lukashenko’s management, though, and more to do with loans coming in from Russia to keep the country afloat and secure its fealty to Moscow.

As of last summer, Belarus owed Russia about $7.5 billion, causing tensions between the two countries. In an effort to signal his independence and that he hadn’t mismanaged the economy, Lukashenko said his country would give Russia $1 billion per year until the debt was repaid. Further, Belarus would no longer request more funds. “Stop yelling that you are providing for us,” he said in a speech last year, clearly directing his comments at the Kremlin.

Such bravado may also have been a cover. Russia had mostly stopped injecting cash into Belarus, and Minsk struggled to get financial support from other capitals (though Beijing did provide a $500 million loan last year).

As a result, Belarus’s GDP has basically been flat since 2012, forcing thousands to seek work in nearby countries like Poland, work multiple jobs, or gain employment in the country’s byzantine public sector.

That has long spelled trouble for Lukashenko. “An authoritarian system can maintain its popularity as long as it can provide the goods for the population,” said Eleanor Bindman, an expert on post-Soviet states and authoritarian regimes at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. “Once that social and economic side of the bargain goes away, people start thinking: ‘What are we getting out of this?’”

That thought clearly crept up more and more as Lukashenko failed to handle his nation’s coronavirus crisis. He called concerns about an outbreak a mass “psychosis” and claimed all it took to kill the virus was a little vodka or a quick trip to the sauna. “No one in the country will die from coronavirus,” he said in April, acknowledging two months later that he contracted the disease but had no symptoms.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, with a raised fist, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, left, on June 24, in Moscow.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

His lack of alarm kept the regime from imposing any social restrictions or offering any help to those on the front lines of the national response. “The state completely withdrew without providing support for medical workers,” Maryia Rohava, a Belarus expert at the University of Oslo in Norway, told me. They gave no guidelines and barely provided information at all, she continued, and led Belarusians to take matters into their own hands.

The country has an educated and highly tech-savvy population, and they used that know-how to crowdfund support for medical professionals. One campaign, #bycovid19, provided around $130,000 and 27,000 respirators in April alone. “Our goal is to make sure this system doesn’t collapse,” Andrej Stryzhak, the group’s cofounder, told the Guardian at the time. Such a collapse was possible, as cases increased while just one mask sold on the country’s black market for nearly $16.

Those kinds of campaigns brought hundreds of thousands of Belarusians together online — mostly on Telegram — to both form a movement and realize together that the country was in dire straits with Lukashenko at the helm. Any support the leader had quickly eroded. “We saw many people flip because of Covid-19, poverty, and his attitude toward current problems,” Franak Viacorka, an independent journalist in Belarus, told me.

The longstanding opposition to Lukashenko finally had its greatest opening — the dictator was weak. But the person who would soon lead the opposition was still taking care of her two kids at home, unaware she was about to become the most effective politician to challenge Lukashenko in decades.

How Tikhanovskaya rose to her unlikely moment

Initially three men looked to take the mantle of Lukashenko’s top challenger. But one by one, the dictator found a way to brush them aside before the election — a move experts said was rare because he usually waits to put down the opposition after the vote.

Victor Babariko, widely seen as the most likely opposition candidate, was barred by the regime from running. Valery Tsepkalo, the country’s former ambassador to the US, also couldn’t register for the election and subsequently fled to Russia fearing for his life.

The third man was Sergei Tikhanovsky, the popular YouTuber and fierce Lukashenko critic, who was repeatedly arrested for trying to get in the race. In response, Tikhanovsky in May pushed for his wife Svetlana to run in his stead, an idea experts told me gained support among thousands connected on Telegram. She collected the requisite 100,000 signatures which allowed her to register with regime-controlled election authorities.

Somewhat surprisingly, they approved her registration.

Experts told me Lukashenko usually allows some opposition candidates to run against him. Doing so lets the regime keep the appearance of a fair election and also allows those with grievances to express them once in a while, hoping complaints die down soon after the vote. That seems to have happened in this case, but the president also didn’t seem too threatened by Tikhanovskaya’s candidacy.

One reason was Tikhanovskaya had no political experience at all. In fact, she had never spoken at a political rally before. The other was Lukashenko holds sexist, outdated views of women. “Society is not mature enough to vote for a woman,” Lukashenko said in July, adding that the weight of the presidency would lead her to “collapse, poor thing.”

But Tikhanovskaya didn’t collapse under pressure. Instead, she united the opposition and brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in support.

Tsepkalo’s wife and Babariko’s campaign manager, also a woman, backed her campaign during a July announcement that went viral after each made a sign with their hands: a heart, a fist in a fist-pump position, and a “V” for victory. The moment provided immense momentum to her candidacy, as it became clear three women symbolized a youth movement against the old dictator.

“This was a surprising and brilliant move by the opposition,” Tatyana Margolin, the regional director for Open Society’s Eurasia program, told me. “They undoubtedly saw that together they [would] be stronger, so they joined forces rather quickly.”

Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, center, poses with Veronika Tsepkalo, left, the wife of opposition figure Valery Tsepkalo, and Maria Kolesnikova, Viktor Babaryko’s campaign chief, right, at a rally near Minsk on July 31, 2020.
Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

But Tikhanovskaya’s story was compelling in its own right: To take on the role of political leader, she sent her kids away to an undisclosed location to keep them out of the regime’s clutches. She also made clear that in the unlikely event she actually won, she would quickly hold free elections to let someone who actually wanted to be president to take over.

“I don’t need power, but my husband is behind bars,” Tikhanovskaya told a large Minsk crowd in July. “I’m tired of putting up with it. I’m tired of being silent. I’m tired of being afraid.”

She outlined some reforms, namely her husband’s platform of giving more money to the poor by taking cash away from the corrupt elite. But it’s what she and her female backers represented — a country without an entrenched, corrupt, dangerous regime in charge — that garnered her immense support.

Ironically, it was similar to the message the dictator offered back in 1994. “She’s trying to out-Lukashenko Lukashenko,” the Wilson Center’s Rojansky told me.

That play worked, as she drew hundreds of thousands across the country — not just in cities, but even small towns that have historically been Lukashenko strongholds — into the opposition. “She’s mostly a symbol of the grievances that people are trying to express,” said the University of Oslo’s Rohava.

Those grievances are now being expressed by many on Belarus’s streets. The likelihood that they’ll change anything in the short term, though, is unlikely.

Lukashenko is likely to hold on to power — for now

Belarus has long seen anti-Lukashenko protests like the ones on Minsk’s streets in recent weeks. In 2017, for example, the regime imposed a tax on part-time or unemployed workers, leading thousands to demonstrate against the government. In the end, Lukashenko cracked down on that movement like he had on others in previous years.

Some experts I spoke to said that given enough repression and time, it’s likely the current movement will fizzle out despite its unprecedented size and scope. “The regime is durable,” said Konstantin Ash, an expert on protests in Belarus at the University of Central Florida. “Lukashenko isn’t in a sky-is-falling situation. He’s still very much in charge.”

The only way to tell his grip on power is slipping, Ash added, was if members of the country’s security forces — which receive an inordinate amount of funding and authority from the autocrat — start to defect. “That’s the crucial element.”

So far that hasn’t happened. Instead, security forces have arrested 3,000 people in Minsk and 2,000 others around the country. Lukashenko has vowed to keep the pressure on protesters he called “sheep” under foreign control on Monday. “People need to settle down, calm down.”

But others are convinced Lukashenko’s increased repression, deadly failings, and the size of the democratic movement — now well-connected online — means the dictator’s days are numbered. “This is the best opportunity for this to be the beginning of the end for Lukashenko,” Manchester Metropolitan University’s Bindman told me. “I’d be very surprised if he made it through another five-year term without any other troubles.”

Stefanovic, the human rights leader in Belarus, said what’s also changed is the nation’s attitudes toward female leadership. That could sustain the movement far longer than Lukashenko might think. “Our society is ready to have a woman as the leader of the country,” he told me. “What matters is what a leader says, not if they’re a woman or man.”

The wild card in all of this, though, is Russia. Moscow wants deeper economic and political integration with Belarus, mainly in an effort to ensure it doesn’t lean westward and away from the Kremlin’s grip. That has some worried Russian President Vladimir Putin may launch a Ukraine-like invasion into the Eastern European nation.

Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, though, isn’t so concerned. “The Russians can’t like their choices much,” he said. “Lukashenko has been an ornery partner for years, extremely hard to subdue. But the idea that he’d be brought low by a popular outpouring of opposition to dictatorship and bad management? From Putin’s point of view, that’s pretty awful too.”

What’s more, he added, it’s not like Belarus’s people are clamoring for a more Soviet-like future. Belarus “may look like a poor, unreformed Soviet backwater, but it’s been a nominally independent country now for close to 30 years,” Sestanovich said. “If there’s a constituency for returning to the Russian fold, Putin hasn’t found it.”

Anti-Lukashenko activists, then, may not have to contend with the complication of a Russian invasion. What they have to deal with — a weakened dictator who still wields immense power — will be tough enough.

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