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Updated at 18:00 ET
In Belarus, a 37-year-old political novice has been urging the European leader to manage his money for the longest time.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is challenging 65-year-old Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in an unexpectedly controversial election scheduled for August 9th.
An English translator and mother of two, Tikhanovskaya decided to run after her husband, a popular blogger, was jailed in May.
“I don’t need power, but my husband is behind bars,” Tikhanovskaya told a giant rally in the capital, Minsk, on Thursday. “I had to hide my children. I’m tired of coming to terms with this. I’m tired of being silent. I’m tired of fear.”
A huge crowd of supporters filled the city park, waving flashlights on their cell phones as darkness fell. Tikhanovskaya has been attracting crowds to Belarusian cities since joining the campaigns of two other opposition candidates, one of whom is in pre-trial detention and the other has fled to Russia for his own safety.
Belarus – mired 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, survives on energy subsidies from the Kremlin, even as he discourages Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assurances of closer political and economic integration.
Tikhanovskaya became Lukashenko’s main opponent after her husband, Sergei, was denied registration as a candidate and imprisoned on charges of disturbing public order and the election. Sergei Tikhanovsky gained popularity with his YouTube channel, which took socio-economic issues, which were ignored by state television.
Amnesty International considers Tikhanovsky a prisoner of conscience and condemned the “growing restriction of human rights” ahead of the August vote. Candidates, their supporters and political activists face detention during the election campaign.
“We are deeply concerned about reports of mass protests and detentions of peaceful activists and journalists,” US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortag said in a tweet posted by the US Embassy in Minsk this month. “We believe it is extremely important for the government to ensure a level playing field for all those who want to run in the elections.”
The United States has been without an ambassador in Minsk since 2008, when bilateral relations collapsed amid opposition from the Belarusian opposition.
Lukashenko is now seeking rapprochement with Washington as a way to counter Kremlin pressure. In February, he received Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk, and since then President Trump has nominated a new US ambassador.
Lukashenko, known for his popular wit, alternates lambas or praises the West, depending on the occasion. During a visit to a Belarusian Special Forces unit last week, he compared recent events in the United States to those in Belarus.
“We would not like to use the armed forces, but anything can happen. The United States is a case in point, “he said, referring to the deployment of US federal agents amid ongoing 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 take them abroad. These are professional military gangsters who are specially trained, mostly as part of private military companies. . “
Five days later, the Belarusian KGB told Lukashenko that 33 men working for a Russian private military contractor had been arrested in Minsk. The KGB said the men were part of a team planning to cause unrest before the election, and that more than 150 others were still at large. On Thursday, Belarusian investigators opened a criminal case against the Russians – and linked them to Tikhanovskaya’s wife. She dismissed the allegations as “completely implausible”
A spokesman for Putin said reports outside Belarus were full of “insinuations” and “speculations” and expressed hope that the arrested Russians would be released from their “groundless detentions”. He denied that there were private military contractors in Russia.
“We must remember that it is a long tradition for Lukashenko to use terrorists as brazen people,” wrote Andrei Sinitsyn, editor of public opinion at the Russian online magazine Republic.ru. “After the election that Lukashenko won, these stories came out, even though opposition politicians were closed anyway.”
The Kremlin is interested in negotiating with a weakened Lukashenko, Sinitsyn said, but his removal as a result of democratic elections – or a revolution – would set a “terrible precedent” for Russia.
Belarusian opposition activists fear that the hunt for Russian mercenaries could be used as a pretext for more draconian measures by the authorities. But this fear did not stop Tikhanovskaya’s supporters from ending up in Minsk en masse.
“They are talking about a revolution,” Tikhanovskaya said. “What revolution? Why provoke our own people? We have absolutely no need for fighters, we are peaceful people.”