Belarus presidential elections: Meet the three women teaming up to take on 'Europe's last dictator'
These are the women joining forces to face Belarus' long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko in the upcoming August 9 presidential election.
The trio have become the main symbol of the opposition, going up against Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years and has been dubbed Europe's last dictator.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (pictured, centre) is the wife of well-known blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who has been unable to run in the election after being detained in May on charges of attacking a police officer.
Svetlana is running in his place.
"Seryozha, I love you very much," said the 37-year-old while standing outside Belarus' Central Election Commission (CEC), after receiving a certificate of registration as a presidential candidate. "I am doing this only for you and the people who followed you and believed in you."
Tikhanovskaya joined forces with the campaigns of two other candidates who have both been barred from taking part in the election.
Veronika Tsepkalo is the wife of Valery Tsepkalo, who fled Belarus for Moscow out of fear of being arrested after being ousted from the election. Maria Kolesnikova is involved with the campaign of Viktor Babariko, who was stopped from registering after being arrested on charges of bribery.
'The main goal is to win the election'
"The three of us had absolutely identical goals," said Kolesnikova in an interview with Dailyrater. "Our main goal is to win the election."
Tikhanovskaya, an inexperienced speaker and a novice politician, has travelled around the country, filling stadiums and squares accompanied by Kolesnikova and Tsepkalo. Over the past week, the women have visited 11 cities.
"It's an incredible feeling of celebration and some kind of unity among the people," said Kolesnikova, talking about how her rallies have blocked streets and drawn big crowds.
If she wins, Tikhanovskaya has promised to grant amnesty to political prisoners and to schedule new elections within six months. She intends to let all the candidates excluded from this election take part in a fresh one.
"None of the political scientists and analysts could have imagined that at the finish line of these elections such a tough, inflexible leader as the Belarusian authoritarian will be opposed by a housewife," said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky, adding that she is also someone who had admitted that she is not a politician.
But experts have said that there has been more interest in this year's presidential campaign as well.
The main reason for Tikhanovskaya's success may be the "touching" history of her family, according to Klaskovsky.
"People feel that justice has been violated, and this feeling is very strong in the soul of the people," said the expert.
'The president will be a man, I am absolutely convinced of it.'
Incumbent Lukashenko has repeatedly stressed that he does not believe that women will win the elections.
"Our constitution is not for a woman. And our society is not mature enough to vote for a woman. Because in our constitution, the president has strong power," said the head of state back in May.
Citing the example of former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, he emphasised that Belarus had a different system with a stronger president.
"The president will be a man, I am absolutely convinced of it."
The level of trust in Lukashenko in the country is 78.1% and 72.3% of Belarusians are ready to vote for him, according to polling commissioned by Belarusian state TV channel ONT.
Only 7.5% of respondents were ready to vote for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Yet experts are sceptical about the results of the polling due to a ban on sociological research in Belarus.
Kolesnikova said Lukashenko's words were sexist.
"On the part of the Belarusian people, we feel absolute support and love," she said.
Russians detained over elections
Meanwhile, authorities in Belarus detained 32 Russians near Minsk on Wednesday, who allegedly were attempting to plan attacks amid the elections.
Security forces are now searching for 200 Russians throughout the country and authorities have tightened the rules for mass gatherings, including meetings with candidates.
"All our events will be held in normal mode," assured Tikhanovskaya, after the restrictions were announced on the day of the opposition rally planned in the capital.
Nonetheless, tens of thousands of people gathered at a rally in Minsk on Thursday in support of Tikhanovskaya, with observers saying the rally was the biggest in Belarus' history since independence from the Soviet Union.
Klaskovsky said the current campaign is becoming difficult for the president due to the unexpected popularity of Tikhanovskaya.
Is it possible to win the election?
Despite strong support during the rallies, Tikhanovskaya has repeatedly said she does not believe that the upcoming election will be fair.
Kolesnikova also treats election forecasts with caution: "It depends on many factors. In particular, what names will be on the final ballot because there is still a risk of withdrawing certain candidates," she said.
"We only hope that this time the authorities will act wisely and understand that the majority of voters are not with the incumbent president," she added.
During a visit to a military unit in Minsk, Lukashenko recently took part in exercises to disperse protesters with the help of water cannons.
"Most of all, you and I should be concerned that we do not allow the situation in our country to destabilise," said the head of state.
But many voters are unsatisfied with several crises that have occurred over the past few years.
According to the Ministry of Finance, Belarus' GDP fell from 170 million Belarusian roubles (€59.2 million) in 2010 to 131 million Belarusian roubles (€45.6 million) in 2019. The country's gross domestic product will decline by another four per cent in 2020, according to the latest projections of the World Bank.
These economic difficulties could cause problems for the leader:
"Lukashenko has no answers to the questions that worry people," said Klaskovsky.
"Lukashenko does not hide his hostility to the reforms and willingness to control the situation by force. And this does not suit a significant part of the Belarusian society, as we see as thousands protests. This dissatisfaction will not go anywhere," he added.