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Who is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya? Meet the trailblazing woman inspiring political change in Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko may have claimed victory in yesterday’s presidential elections, but trailblazing opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has still managed to inspire political change in the country. But who is she, and what does she stand for? Stylist investigates. 

UPDATED 10 AUGUST 2020: Protests have broken out in cities across Belarus after the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, claimed a landslide victory in yesterday’s elections, despite Svetlana Tikhanovskaya presenting the strongest opposition to the president in years.

It has been suggested that Lukashenko won 80.23% of the vote, but these numbers have been criticised by the president’s opponents, who accuse him of vote-rigging (thousands of people were reportedly also left unable to vote after polling stations closed with large queues still waiting outside). After polls closed in the country’s capital Minsk yesterday, crowds of thousands of people clashed with police as they called for Lukashenko’s removal. 

After going into hiding on Saturday evening, Tikhanovskaya arrived at the polling station to vote yesterday surrounded by a team of allies and journalists. According to The Guardian, late Sunday evening, she called for an end to the violence between protestors and police, saying: “I want to ask the militia and troops to remember that they are part of the people. Please, stop the violence.”

This morning (10 August), Tikhanovskaya told reporters in the city that she rejected the result of the election, saying: “I will believe my own eyes”. 

Crowds take to the streets in Minsk, Belarus after Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in their elections.
Crowds take to the streets in Minsk, Belarus after Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in their elections.

Although Tikhanovskaya’s campaign may not have claimed victory, it’s clear that her message has inspired widespread change in Belarus. David Marples, a professor at the University of Alberta and an expert on the country, told The Guardian the protest was “the biggest” he’d seen since Lukashenko came to power: “In terms of the elections that Lukashenko’s held, there’s been nothing like it. It seems to me that the whole country really is in favour of change.”

For now, it’s a waiting game to see what happens next in the clashes between protestors and police. But one thing’s for sure: Tikhanovskaya’s campaign will go down in history as a turning point in the country’s political landscape.

AS REPORTED ON 9 AUGUST 2020: While the world’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic, people in Belarus have been holding their breath. As the country headed to the polls yesterday (9 August) in their presidential elections, many people in the country were daring to hope that change may finally be coming to the country, in the form of political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Sometimes referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” Belarus’ presidential seat has been held by a man called Alexander Lukashenko for 26 years. Elections are held every five years in the country (the last was in 2015), but Lukashenko’s wins have repeatedly been criticised by election observers who have reported problems with the way votes are counted and handled.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has been championed by two other women, Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of a would-be candidate who was forced to flee the country, and Maria Kolesnikova, the former campaign manager of a candidate arrested in June. Together they have presented the first real challenge to Lukashenko’s leadership in a long while, but there was always little hope that they could claim the victory.

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With that being said, Tikhanovskaya, Tsepkalo and Kolesnikova’s presence on the campaign trail has been a reminder that attitudes are changing in the country, and there’s hope that their message will continue to permeate Belarusian society even if Lukashenko reclaims power.

So who is Tikhanovskaya, and how did she come to symbolise this new movement in Belarusian politics? Here’s everything you need to know about the woman standing up to “Europe’s last dictator”. 

How did Svetlana Tikhanovskaya become a candidate in the elections?

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya shows her certificate after a meeting of the Belarusian Central Election Committee on the registration of candidates for the 2020 Belarusian presidential election.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya shows her certificate after a meeting of the Belarusian Central Election Committee on the registration of candidates for the 2020 Belarusian presidential election.

Tikhanovskaya is a former English teacher and housewife with no prior political experience, so her decision to join the ballot was as much as a surprise to her as it likely was to Lukashenko.

She spontaneously decided to join the presidential race after her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTube blogger, was arrested after trying to register as a candidate. He had been building an audience online in the build-up to the election by touring the country and giving voice to Belarusian people who wanted to air their grievances against the current president’s administration.

Since making it on the ballot, Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has become a symbol for candidates like her husband who have been barred from running.

Together with Tsepkalo and Kolesnikova, Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has come to symbolise a new form of female political activism in the country, with the trio’s signature campaign logo of a heart, clenched fist and peace sign becoming a powerful symbol for their supporters.

What does Svetlana Tikhanovskaya stand for?

The message behind Tikhanovskaya’s campaign is very simple: she wants to ensure the country’s political prisoners (such as her husband) are freed, and hold free and fair elections in the country within six months.

How has Belarus responded to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign?

Supporters of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya hold up a flag of her campaign symbol during a demonstration.
Supporters of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya hold up a flag of her campaign symbol during a demonstration.

Tikhanovskaya, Tsepkalo and Kolesnikova have been drawing record crowds to their rallies across the country – over 60,000 people attended their rally in the country’s capital, Minsk, last month.

And it’s this popular support that has given Tikhanovskaya the courage to keep fighting her campaign; according to Sky News, she told a crowd in the city of Mogilev: “So many times in this campaign I was close to quitting. I’m not a public person and I’m a weak person to face the actions of the government towards me as a mother and a wife. 

“But just the belief that you people are together as a nation, you have helped me get through this.”

What has Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said about the election? 

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova at a campaign rally in Maladzechna.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova at a campaign rally in Maladzechna.

Despite her success so far in the election, Tikhanovskaya has said she hopes to go back to the life she knew before everything changed after the campaign is over.

“I am just the same, un self-confident person I was,” she told Sky News in the run-up to the election. “But this is my mission – I have to overcome all these difficulties and bring our country to a free future and become a mother and wife again.

“People say that usually women are weak. Maybe we are. But when there is need, when our duty calls us and we have to be strong, we are.”

In an interview with the Financial Times in July, Tikhanovskaya echoed this message, saying she would rather be at home spending time with her family than “making serious decisions”.

“I’d be very happy to spend time with my family instead of making serious decisions for the benefit of the country,” she said. “I wouldn’t have to spent time away from my children and worry about how my husband is being treated in prison.”

But despite her reluctance to take on this new role, Tikhanovskaya is persistent in her mission to end the injustice going on in her country. In July, she told supporters in Minsk: “I don’t need power, but my husband is behind bars. I had to hide my children. I’m sick of putting up with it, keeping quiet, and being afraid.” 

What consequences could Svetlana Tikhanovskaya face for running against Lukashenko?

By running against Lukashenko, Tikhanovskaya could face a number of potential consequences. She has already had to put safety measures in place to protect her family: the children of opposition candidates have been taken away before and put into state orphanages, so Tikhanovskaya has had to send her children away to another part of Europe.

On the eve of the election, Tikhanovskaya went into hiding after police detained several of her senior staffers, a move which critics have called an attempt to scare the opposition ahead of the vote, according to The Guardian. 

She emerged on the day of the election to cast her vote, protected by a crowd of allies and journalists.

What is the current situation in Belarus?

A woman casts her vote during the Belarusian election
The Belarusian election comes after a decrease in popular support for long-term president Alexander Lukashenko.

Alongside the thousands of people being detained for speaking up and protesting against the political establishment, Belarus is also struggling to fight coronavirus. Covid-19 has officially led to the deaths of 585 people in the country, but officials say many of the coronavirus-related fatalities are actually registered as pneumonia.

People in Belarus have been forced to co-ordinate the supply of masks and other safety equipment to hospitals across the country, as president Lukashenko has repeatedly played down the risk of coronavirus and not enforced a national lockdown. Earlier in the crisis, the president called the pandemic a “psychosis” that could be cured by driving tractors or mingling with goats, and suggested that people should drink vodka and visit saunas to ward off the virus.

People in the country have also complained of poverty, a lack of opportunity and poor pay – all of which has led many people to oppose Lukashenko’s re-election.

Was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya expected to win?

Unfortunately, no. Despite the outpouring of support for her campaign, and the fall in popular support for Lukashenko, it’s always been unlikely the political elite in the country will let anyone other than the president be voted into office. According to Sky News, the members of local electoral committees across the country were also not expected to report the true voting tally, as doing so could put their jobs and families at risk.

Despite the fact that Tikhanovskaya may not have claimed victory in this election, her brave campaign – and the support of two other incredible women – has led the way for change in the country.

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