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In Belarus, stay-at-home mum takes on "Europe's last dictator"

06:00 09 August 2020 Author :  

Three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Belarus lives and breathes its Soviet legacy: there is scant privately owned property in the nation of 9.5 million people, 80 percent of the economy is in state hands, and a statue of Vladimir Lenin still takes pride of place the main square of the capital Minsk.

For the only time since he was first elected in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko, a 65-year old former collective farm boss, dubbed "Europe’s last dictator," faces a formidable challenge at the polls. Until just a few months ago, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 37, was a stay-at-home mum, and she is a reluctant politician.

This year’s presidential campaign that culminates in the elections on Sunday has galvanised even Mr Lukashenko’s former supporters and government functionaries.

Mikalay Lysyankou, for example, was proud of being appointed director of a collective farm in the town of Stoubtsy at the age of 26. But he has come to realise that the Soviet way in which agriculture is still run in Belarus is just not working.

“A collective farm in Belarus now is the same as a collective farm in the Soviet Union in the 1980s,” he told The Telegraph. “Our president got stuck in the 1980s, and he wants our country to stay there.”

Unlike Russia or Ukraine, Belarus did not go through painful reforms to build a fully functioning market economy. Thanks to Russia’s cheap energy imports, President Lukashenko was able to sustain Soviet-style governance with free but poor quality healthcare or cheap, state-owned canteens at often economically unviable state factories.

But the country’s ingrained corruption and Soviet-like bureaucracy has been dragging it down. Belarusians face a choice: put up with measly salaries at state companies - the average monthly salary is about £370 - or go to work abroad.

In the town of Stoubtsy, population 17,000, “the only good job you can get is the advertised work in Poland,” according to Mr Lysyankou. He speaks of dozens of friends who left for Poland as seasonal workers in the last year or two.

Hundreds lined the streets this spring to sign up with opposition candidates. Tens of thousands came to protest at rallies in small towns that had never seen any political activism.

“Several things are at play right now: a tough economic situation, life is getting harder for Belarusians as well as Lukashenko’s inaction during the coronavirus crisis,” Ales Bialiatski, a veteran human rights activist who spent three years in jail, told The Telegraph.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck Belarus, President Lukashenko laughed at the danger. He even mocked the country’s first coronavirus victim for being obese and failing to take good care of himself. No lockdown was ordered, nor restrictions imposed as the the Belarusian leader insisted he needed to put the economy first.

His flagrant denial of the pandemic’s scale when the country’s hospitals were overwhelmed was a tipping point for many, including the town of Stoubtsy. “This is what pushed people onto the streets to protest… when he said that money matters more than people’s lives,” said Mr Lyasyankou.

This weekend, Belarus counted 68,576 Covid-19 cases. That is on par with neighbouring Ukraine which has four times the population.

By the time Belarusian election officials registered four candidates to run against Mr Lukashenko, his three main rivals had been sidelined. In a sign of desperation to retain his 26-year grip on power, he said on Tuesday that he was "not going to give away Belarus to anyone."

Siarhei Tsikhanousky, a popular YouTuber, was sent to prison for assaulting a police officer at a campaign rally after the policeman fell down in a crowd. Banker Viktar Babaryka was jailed over alleged financial crimes. Valery Tsepkala, a former Belarusian ambassador to the United States, was told more than half of his supporters’ signatures were forged and barred from running.

Mr Lukashenko’s only opponent who was allowed to seek office, then, is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She decided to stand after her husband, the jailed blogger, was disqualified.

Mr Tsepkala, who fled Belarus fearing arrest and spoke by phone from Ukraine, said: “Lukashenko got scared of us, men, and he was sure that he can beat Sviatlana because she has no political experience.”

The former English teacher and stay-at-home mum received threats about her children and was close to abandoning her bid. But she managed to send her 10-year old son and 5-year old daughter out of the country before she launched her campaign.

Mrs Tsikhanousky, a softly spoken woman, told The Telegraph: “It was a thing I did for love. Everything in this country is based on fear. I’ve been feeling scared every day. I wake every morning and I want to give up. I have my cry and I move on.”

She has teamed up with Mr Babaryka’s campaign manager, a 38-year-old musician, and the 49-year old wife of disqualified candidate Tsepkala, a Microsoft executive in Belarus. Together, the three women mounted an impressive campaign, attracting rallies in small towns that had never before seen any opposition activity. They drew 60,000 to an event in Minsk last week, the country’s largest rally since the fall of the Soviet Union.

President Lukashenko, who has a history of accusing foreign powers of plotting to topple him, has dismissed the three women as “wretched girls” co-opted by those who take their orders from Russia, Belarus’ closest ally. To seasoned observers, that seems rich, coming from the man who has relied on Russian subsidies and cheap energy imports to prop up his rule.

He claimed last week that authorities uncovered a plot by 33 Russian mercenaries arriving in Belarus to foment unrest. Russia denies the accusations.

In his annual address to the nation on Tuesday, Mr Lukashenko, who said he had recovered from Covid-19, looked visibly flustered - and sounded desperate. Capping a fortnight of touring military bases and calling on troops to clamp down on opposition demonstrations, he warned that pro-democracy activists are plotting to “organise a massacre” in Minsk.

Mr Bialiatski said: “Lukashenko was livid: he realises that he stands not only against the usual, narrow opposition circles but that the number of those who want change is now millions and millions. This is not some ten thousand people that you can lock up, and he’s nervous.”

Tsikhanouskaya was originally allowed to canvas. But in recent days, the authorities have started to turn down their requests for campaign venues and arrest protesters and activists. On Saturday night, on the eve of the election, her campaign manager was detained.

The day after the Telegraph interviewed Mr Lysyankou, who leads the campaign for opposition candidate Siarhei Cherachen, he was also detained at a polling station where he was monitoring early voting. He was jailed for 10 days for organising an unlawful gathering.

The same day, two men who put on the famous Soviet protest song “We Wait for Change!” at a municipal concert on Thursday that soon turned into an anti-government rally were arrested for breaking public order. They, too, were jailed for 10 days.

Election authorities are largely expected to come out with an announcement of a landslide victory for Mr Lukashenko. It is bound to spark protests.

Mrs Tsikhanouskaya, who knows the brutality with which Belarus’ plainclothes policemen handle protesters, said: “As a mum, I will never urge people to take to the streets. I don’t want this to happen. But we’re left with no choice. How else can people show their frustration?”

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