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Updated at 6 p.m. ET
In Belarus, a 37-year-old political newcomer is giving Europe’s longest-serving leader a run for his money.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya challenges Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (65) in an unexpectedly controversial election on August 9.
Tikhanovskaya, an English translator and mother of two, decided to run after her husband, a popular blogger, was arrested in May.
“I don’t need electricity, but my husband is behind bars,” Tikhanovskaya said on Thursday at a huge rally in the capital, Minsk. “I had to hide my children. I’m tired of resigning myself to it. I’m tired of being silent. I’m tired of being scared.”
A huge crowd of followers filled a city park and waved the flashlights on their cell phones as darkness fell. Tikhanovskaya has been attracting crowds of cities across Belarus since its association with the campaigns of two other opposition candidates, one of whom is in custody and the other who fled to Russia for his safety.
Belarus – 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, who has been in power since 1994, has survived with energy subsidies from the Kremlin, despite repelling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s overtures for closer political and economic integration.
Tikhanovskaya became Lukashenko’s main opponent after her husband Sergei was refused entry as a candidate and detained for violating public order and electoral laws. Sergei Tikhanovsky had become more popular with his YouTube channel, which dealt with socio-economic issues that were ignored by state television.
Amnesty International considers Tikhanovsky to be a “prisoner of conscience” and has condemned “an increasing restriction on human rights” before the August vote. Candidates, their supporters and political activists were detained during the campaign.
“We are deeply concerned about reports of mass protests and detentions of peaceful activists and journalists,” said State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus in a tweet released by the US embassy in Minsk earlier this month. “We believe it is incredibly important that the government creates a level playing field for everyone who wants to vote.”
The United States has had no ambassador to Minsk since 2008 when bilateral relations collapsed when the Belarusian opposition was cracked down.
Lukashenko is now moving towards Washington to counter the pressure from the Kremlin. He received Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk in February, and President Trump has since appointed a new U.S. ambassador.
Lukashenko, known for his popular jokes, alternately lambastes or praises the West depending on the occasion. During a visit to a Belarusian special unit last week, he compared recent events in the United States with those in Belarus.
“We don’t want to use the armed forces, but anything can happen. The United States is a typical example,” he said, referring to the use of federal agents amid protests in some US cities.
Lukashenko said modern wars begin with street protests: “If there are not enough people here to take part in such revolutions, they will bring them from abroad. These are professional military gangsters who are specially trained, mainly as part of private military companies.”
Five days later, Belarusian KGB Lukashenko reported that 33 men who worked for a Russian private military contractor had been arrested in Minsk. The KGB said the men were part of a team that wanted to cause unrest before the elections and more than 150 others were still at large. On Thursday, Belarusian investigators opened criminal proceedings against the Russians – and linked them to Tikhanovskaya’s husband. She rejected the allegations as “completely implausible”.
Putin’s spokesman said the reports from Belarus were full of “insinuations” and “speculation” and expressed the hope that the arrested Russians would be released from their “groundless detention”. He denied that there are private military entrepreneurs in Russia.
“We have to remember that it is a long tradition for Lukashenko to use terrorists as a fool,” wrote Andrei Sinitsyn, opinion editor of the Russian online magazine Republic.ru. “After the elections Lukashenko won, these stories got mixed up, even though opposition politicians were locked up anyway.”
The Kremlin is interested in negotiating with a weakened Lukashenko, Sinitsyn said, but his dismissal as a result of a democratic election – or a revolution – would set a “terrible precedent” for Russia.
Belarusian opposition fears that the hunt for Russian mercenaries could serve as a pretext for more draconian measures by the authorities. But this fear did not prevent Tikhanovskaya’s followers from reporting in large numbers in Minsk.
“You are talking about a kind of revolution,” said Tikhanovskaya. “What revolution? Why provoke your own people? We absolutely don’t need fighters, we are peaceful people.”