The mother challenging Belarus’s longtime ruler

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The mother challenging Belarus’s longtime ruler


Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (centre), Maria Kolesnikova, a representative of politician Viktor Babariko's campaign office (right), and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of opposition figure Valery Tsepkalo, at a rally in Minsk, Belarus. Photo: 30 July 2020

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AFP

Image caption

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (centre) have joined forces with Veronkia Tsepkalo (left) and Maria Kolesnikova

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya would prefer to be frying cutlets than running for president of Belarus.

At least, that’s what the stay-at-home mum laughingly told a crowd of supporters at a recent campaign rally.

But she also told them this election bid to challenge Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year-long grip on power was a “mission” she could not refuse.

The political novice only stepped in as a candidate for president when her husband was arrested and blocked from registering. A second serious rival to Mr Lukashenko has also wound up in prison and a third has fled the country.

So Ms Tikhanovskaya, 37, who had to send her two children abroad for safety reasons, has become the surprise face of change in Belarus.

She’s joined forces with Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of one would-be candidate, and Maria Kolesnikova, campaign manager for another,

And the three women have been drawing record crowds to rallies across the country.

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Media captionActivists and journalists are being rounded up and jailed in Belarus ahead of the election

“They are not Margaret Thatcher, the type of ladies who are in politics all their lives, but they are very sincere,” is how Valery Tsepkalo explained the trio’s unique appeal, in an interview in Moscow.

A former ambassador to the US, Mr Tsepkalo’s own attempt to register for the presidential race was rejected.

He told the BBC he had to leave Belarus after getting information “from several sources” that his arrest was imminent.

“In previous election campaigns, Lukashenko had public support. But this time it’s vanished and that’s why he is so nervous,” Mr Tsepkalo argues.

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Reuters

Image caption

Sergei Tikhanovsky (centre) was arrested in May

The shift in mood was captured by Ms Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei, in a popular video blog. For months, he toured Belarus interviewing people from farmers to pensioners.

Remarkably outspoken, they complained of pervasive corruption and poverty, a lack of opportunity and poor pay.

“I was two when the cockroach came to power,” a man called Vladimir told Mr Tikhanovsky in one video, using the blogger’s nickname for the Belarusian president. “My child is two now, and I just want something to change.”

“We are here to put an end to the dictatorship,” another man said.

That pent-up frustration became public when Belarusians began signing up in support of opposition candidates planning to register for the 9 August elections. When they were barred, crowds flooded the streets in anger.

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