The breaking point in Belarus has been made flesh in Svetlana Tikhanovsky
The girl who spent her summers in Tipperary is taking on Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime as the country crumbles
Svetlana Tikhanovsky: she will not take office if she is elected. Her plan is to release all political prisoners and hold free and fair elections. Photograph: Getty Images
The girl who spent her summers in Ireland has grown up. She had to. Her husband, Sergey Tikhanovsky, was arrested, as political opponents of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko tend to be.
Lukashenko has led an authoritarian regime in Belarus for over a quarter of a century. As usual, this election, to be held on August 9th, has been accompanied by the arrest of would-be challengers, such as Tikhanovsky and Victor Babariko.
Such arrests and clampdowns on free speech have succeeded in maintaining Lukashenko’s power and they may succeed again. If they don’t it will be because of Svetlana Tikhanovsky, who in the 1990s spent her summers in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, and is spending this summer as President Alexander Lukashenko’s sole electoral opponent.
Although highly intelligent and well-educated, Sveta was not, until very recently, political. Her husband, an activist, blogger and film-maker, was arrested in May. She watched as other opponents of the president were taken from the streets and placed in pre-trial detention centres.
As challengers to Lukashenko fell one by one, and Belarusian families suffered economically under the regime, Sveta saw her children’s future looking bleaker by the day. She decided to take her husband’s place and fight back.
She was always a fighter. In the 1990s she was one of many children who came to Ireland to combat the impact the Chernobyl disaster was having on their health. While many children only came for one year, Sveta returned year after year to serve as an interpreter and to help other children. She integrated into the Roscrea community, and was the first port of call for any younger Belarusian children who were suffering homesickness or loneliness.
It is this compassion, particularly for children, rather than any analysis of political economy, that is at the heart of her work to change her country. She is, as she repeats in every interview and in every speech, not a politician. She is a mother.
A mother who does not want her children or other children to suffer under Lukashenko’s regime as her generation have suffered. Her message at rallies is not that of a career politician, it is simple and direct, “I love my children. I want them to grow up in a free country. I don’t want them to go to prison like we’ve had to.”
She will not take office if she is elected. Her plan is to release all political prisoners and hold free and fair elections. All political forces in opposition to Lukashenko have rallied around her. It is Lukashenko or Sveta.
All this will take place against the backdrop of a catch-22. Her platform promises to ensure free and fair elections. But she will only be able to provide free and fair elections if she is elected. And she can only be elected in a free and fair election. As such, she would have to win the election in order to provide the one thing that can give her a chance to win the election.
Sveta knows this. Her campaign is lobbying to have independent observers accredited to assess the legitimacy of the count. While they know this won’t happen, they are encouraging people to live stream and blog, take pictures, and hold authorities accountable.
All her supporters are being asked to wear a white wrist band to provide a visible sign of a vote for Svetlana entering and exiting the polling stations. These measures may be as much about holding up a mirror to the regime in the aftermath of a corrupt election as they are about a vain attempt to make this election legitimate.
Because no matter what happens on August 9th, the movement for change that has gathered around Svetlana Tikhanovsky has changed the Belarusian political climate.
Ordinary Belarusians are struggling, some are hungry. The infrastructure that was in place at the end of the USSR – roads, buildings, railroads – is crumbling. All the while near neighbours Poland have seen living conditions for the working class rise. While we in the West decry the social conservatism of the Polish government, people in Belarus see only the massive governmental support of families, which has raised living conditions for the working class.
This is not the result of Western investment, and Poland, from a Belarusian perspective, seems to be increasing its autonomy while also improving the lives of its people.
Meanwhile Belarus’s crumbling economy remains tied to and dependent on Moscow. This dependence, fuelled by the mismanagement of Lukashenko’s government, is a threat to Belarusian sovereignty as Putin dangles the much-needed pipelines of gas and credit in return for closer union with Russia.
While Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime was never popular, poverty, the threat to sovereignty, further restrictions on human rights and increased arrests have pushed the Belarusian people to a breaking point.
That breaking point has been made flesh in Svetlana Tikhanovsky. She is afraid. Fearing for her children’s safety, she has sent them outside of Belarus. Being apart from them is breaking her heart.
In many ways she remains the intelligent, brave, young woman who spent those summers with us in Roscrea. She is uncomfortable speaking about foreign policy. She does not want power. She is running for an office she has no intention of taking up. She has not chosen this path; she just doesn’t want children growing up under the conditions she grew up under.
At a recent rally she took the microphone and began by apologising for her nervousness and unworthiness. Before she could finish the sentence her words were drowned out by the thousands in attendance chanting “Sveta! Sveta! Sveta!”
She smiled, thanked them, and continued on.
David Deane is professor of theology at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Canada