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Updated at 6:00 PM ET
In Belarus, a 37-year-old political novice gives money to Europe’s longest-serving leader for his money.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya calls on 65-year-old President Alexander Lukashenko in an unexpectedly controversial election on August 9.
Tikhanovskaya, an English translator and mother of two, decided to flee in May after her husband, a popular blogger, was arrested in May.
“I don’t need energy, but my husband is behind bars,” Tikhanovskaya said in the capital Minsk on Thursday. “I had to hide my children. I’m getting tired. I don’t like silence anymore. I’m tired of fear. “
The city park was filled with a huge crowd of fans waving their flashlights as darkness fell. Tikhanovskaya has been attracting crowds in cities across Belarus since joining the campaigns of two other opposition candidates, one in custody and the other who fled to Russia for security.
Belarus – a sandwich 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, in power since 1994, has survived energy subsidies from the Kremlin, despite exposing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s preludes to closer political and economic integration.
Tchaikovsky became Lukashenko’s main opponent after her husband Sergei was rejected as a candidate and imprisoned on charges of violating public order and electoral laws. Sergei Tikhanovsky gained popularity on his YouTube channel, which dealt with socio-economic issues ignored by state television.
Amnesty International considers Tikhanovsky a “prisoner of conscience” and condemned “growing restrictions on human rights” before the August vote. All candidates, their supporters and political activists faced detention during the election campaign.
“We are deeply concerned by reports of mass protests and detentions of peace activists and journalists,” State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said in a tweet released this month by the US Embassy in Minsk. “We think it is extremely important for the government to ensure a level playing field for all those who want to vote.”
The United States has been without an ambassador to Minsk since 2008, when bilateral relations were severed as a result of action against the Belarusian opposition.
Lukashenko is now watching the rapprochement with Washington as a way to face the pressure of the Kremlin. 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 testimonies, alternately defends or praises the West, depending on the occasion. During a visit by a Belarusian special forces unit last week, he compared recent events in the United States with those in Belarus.
“We do not want to resort to the use of armed forces, but anything can happen. The United States is an example, “he said, referring to the deployment of US federal agents amid ongoing protests in some US cities.
Lukashenko said modern wars begin with street protests: “If there are not enough people to take part in such revolutions, they will bring them from abroad. They are professional military gangsters who are specially trained, mostly as part of private military companies. “
Five days later, the Belarusian KGB informed Lukashenko that 33 men working for a Russian private military contractor had been arrested in Minsk. The KGB said the men were part of a team that planned to provoke unrest before the election, and that more than 150 others were still at large. Belarusian investigators launched criminal proceedings against the Russians on Thursday – and linked them to Tikanovskaya’s husband. It rejected the allegations as “completely unlikely”.
A spokesman for Putin said the reports from Belarus were full of “allusions” and “speculations” and expressed hope that the arrested Russians would be released from “unjustified detention”. He denied that there were private military contractors in Russia.
“We must remember that Lukashenko has a long tradition of using terrorists as bogeymen,” wrote Andrei Sinitsyn, editor of the Russian online newspaper Republic.ru. “After the election, which Lukashenko won, these stories went out, although opposition politicians were still imprisoned.”
The Kremlin is interested in negotiating with a weakened Lukashenko, Sinitsyn said, but removing it as a result of democratic elections or a revolution would set a “terrible precedent” for Russia.
Belarusian opposition figures fear that the hunt for Russian mercenaries could be a pretext for more draconian measures by the authorities. However, this fear did not stop Tikhanovska’s supporters in the mass media in Minsk.
“They are talking about a revolution,” Tikhanovskaya said. “What revolution?” Why do you provoke your own people? We absolutely don’t need fighters, we are peaceful people. “