On the eve of Belarus’ August 9 presidential election, main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya went into hiding before challenging the current president, Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking his sixth term. Representatives of Tikhanovskaya’s campaign said that she fled her apartment for safety reasons ahead of Sunday’s election, after police detained several of the campaign’s senior staffers in a move critics called an attempt to intimidate the opposition.
While Tikhanovskaya remained in Minsk, her adviser Veronika Tsepkalo fled for Moscow, the campaign told CNN. Her campaign manager, Maria Kolesnikova, was detained and taken to a police station that same night. The day before, campaign manager Maria Moroz was also briefly detained.
The campaign stated that Tikhanovskaya “won’t spend the night at home so that she is not alone.” She decided to become a candidate after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky (a popular blogger who was critical of Belarusian authorities), was barred from running. After he was arrested in May and charged with “organization and preparation of a grave breach of public order,” Tikhanovskaya – a former English tutor and housewife – organized with Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband is a former ambassador to the US, and Maria Kolesnikova, whose boss, Victor Babariko, is a banker also jailed during the campaign, to do what their husbands could not. They had to send their children away to other countries for their safety, as children of opposition candidates have previously been taken away to state orphanages.
Preliminary results are not expected until Monday, August 10, but the head of the Central Elections Commission announced that voters in hospitals and sanatoria in five of the country’s six regions had given Lukashenko 82% of their support. Tikhanovskaya has rejected these exit polls after witnessing a number of protests that turned violent after clashes with police, stating that “What has happened is awful… I will believe my own eyes — the majority was for us.”
This explicit act of suppression and terror against the opposition by the party in power is dangerous and terrifying. Over these past months, people who were genuinely qualified to stand up to the oppression that has been occurring since the fall of the Soviet Union were imprisoned, and people who were barely qualified to do so had to stand up and take their place, putting their families in danger and separating them even more than they already were, all coming to a head on August 8. It is absolutely clear that Lukashenko and his administration do not care about the safety or free speech of the people of Belarus: they only care about maintaining the power they currently have.
The suppression of the voices of any opposition is excessive, and only serves to further the divide between the left and right in Belarus. Rather than search for a middle ground and quiet the voices of dissent through legitimate conversation and compromise, Lukashenko chooses to stick to his guns and force the opposition to remain quiet. This only makes them speak louder, as evidenced by Tikhanovskaya’s campaign after her husband’s arrest. It is only through compromise and discussion that progress will be made. Until that point, continuing to protest and fight against oppression just as Tikhanovskaya, her campaign, and the rest of the opposition to Lukashenko have done, will force their voices to be heard by the current administration.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a former Soviet republic, since 1994, and has drawn international criticism for suppressing dissent. The country’s secret police, which is still known as the KGB, often detains and harasses opposition activists and independent journalists. Independent observers have been barred from monitoring this election, and several dozen were detained on Saturday and early Sunday. In the past, independent observers have found “significant discrepancies” between official and their own counted turnouts, according to CNN.
Tikhanovskaya has stepped up in dire circumstances in order to do what is right, and that is an act that everyone should learn to follow. We must always remember that what we do should always be for what is right. In a speech in Gomel, Tikhanovskaya stated that “I don’t want power. I want to get my children and husband [back], and I want to keep frying my cutlets. When you vote for Tikhanovskaya, you vote for me not as for a politician, but you vote for upcoming changes and a new, fair election.” She was never a politician or even a candidate in the traditional sense, but an ideal, a housewife representing her husband and others arrested unfairly, her children forced out of the country for their own safety. It is important that Belarus and the rest of the international community learns to listen to its citizens with compassion and justice in its heart, not for power but for ideals that truly matter.
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