Svetlana Tikhanovskaya did not dream of running for the presidency of Belarus. The nation, under the rule of dictatorial President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, has been criticized for its lack of free elections. The Lukashenko regime has also come under fire for its suppression and imprisonment of opposition candidates. Corruption is said to be widespread amongst election officials. This is the environment in which 37-year-old stay-at-home mom Tikhanovskaya began her unlikely political battle.

An Unlikely Candidacy

Svetlana entered the race against long time president Lukashenko as a stand-in for her husband, popular political blogger Sergei Tikhanovskaya.  When Sergei was arrested in May of this year, and barred from running for election, Svetlana felt a duty to continue his fight against authoritarianism. 

The campaign has not been without sacrifice. Because of the rampant civil rights abuses in Belarus, Svetlana revealed that she had removed her children from the country for their safety. Though separated from her family, Tikhanovskaya does not fight alone. Two other women, also the wives of suppressed political candidates, have stepped forward to carry out their political goals. Maria Kolesnikova, wife of jailed opposition presidential candidate Viktor Babariko, has joined the campaign. Also uniting forces is Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband Valery fled for Moscow with their children after discovering his impending arrest.

Veronika Tsepkalo, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and Maria Kolesnikova. Photo by Tatyana Zenkovich/European Pressphoto Agency.

Bigotry in Belarus

In addition to the political repression that exists in Belarus, the women must also battle the patriarchal society at large. A May 2020 “Her Rights” report on gender equality in the nation found large societal and governmental discrimination against women. The nation lacks specialized legislation on domestic violence, prohibits women from working 181 professions including fire fighting and train driving, and elects political figures who make openly sexist comments. Alexander Lukashenko remarked, “Our constitution is not made for a woman. Our society hasn’t matured to the point to vote for a woman.”

Unbeatable Odds?

Despite the barriers faced, the three women have made waves. Travelling to various cities in the small Eastern European nation, the candidates have made speeches to large crowds. Tens of thousands gathered at their Minsk rally. 

Though the candidates look to the August 9th election with hope, the odds seem to be stacked against them. A poll by a Belarusian state TV channel found 72.3% of Belarusians were ready to vote for Lukashenko. However, many are skeptical of the poll, as Belarus is known to censor independent studies, as well as journalists. 

Though these candidates began as “placeholders,” they have emerged as political figures in their own right. They are fighting an authoritarian regime, state violence, and sexism; the coalition of women signals change in the fabric of society. Though they face danger, they stand resilient in solidarity. 

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