Until recently, I, like everyone else, paid little attention to elections in Belarus. What did they matter when the result was already known and Alexander Lukashenko would continue in power, as he has for 26 years?
The sense that Mr Lukashenko faced little or no serious challenge ahead of elections today (August 9) was reinforced when I heard a BBC interview with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She’s the wife of an imprisoned opposition leader and has become the figurehead for a groundswell of public anger against Mr Lukashenko, especially for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Click here for video footage of the interview I heard on World Service Radio. But if you don’t, suffice it to say that Ms Tikhanovskaya sounded hesitant and self-deprecating in her conversation with BBC Europe correspondent Jean Mackenzie. Ms Tikhanovskaya also sounded very like the ordinary housewife she said she had until recently been happy to be.
The interview aired on July 22. In the days since, Ms Tikhanovskaya has been drawing massive crowds at public rallies.
The 37-year-old former teacher and stay-at-home mum of two has become the public face of dissatisfaction with Mr Lukashenko’s iron grip on the former Soviet state. The autocrat is often called “Europe’s last dictator”. This time round too he has jailed most of his opponents, banned opinion polls and stretched voting over several days. (Early voting started on Tuesday, August 4).
But he allowed Ms Tikhanovskaya to run. Perhaps he thought she would be too inconsequential to matter. She has proved to be anything but. Despite being a political novice, Ms Tikhanovskaya has been able to enthuse big crowds, something the strongman and his regime appear to have noticed.
In the final week of the campaign, the authorities quickly organised pop concerts at the very venues Ms Tikhanovskaya would have held rallies. The regime, always ruthless towards dissent, cracked down particularly hard in the run-up to election day. Human rights groups said that more than 1,300 people have been detained for participating in peaceful protests. On August 8, just as two days before, the head of Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign was detained.
Accordingly, the world is watching this election. Not in expectation of an earthquake but in recognition of signs that it may be coming. Public sentiment in Belarus is said to be shifting and that may prompt change some day.
Not this election day though, perhaps.
As Tatsiana Kulakevich, an eastern Europe politics expert from the University of South Florida, recently told the Financial Times: “Tikhanovskaya has evolved. She is less afraid of the crowd, she is getting braver, she is improving with her speeches. But will it be enough to change the regime? I don’t think so”.