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This Sunday, a regime that's held power for 26 years is being challenged as never before by a 37-year-old woman

Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya greets people waving the old red-and-white flag of Belarus, now largely a symbol of the opposition, at an Aug. 2 rally in Brest, southwest of Minsk.Sergei Grits/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

The idea must have seemed farcical to Alexander Lukashenko: the suggestion that after 26 years as the strongman ruler of Belarus, his grip on power could be threatened by a 37-year-old political novice – and a woman at that. And so, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was allowed to register as a token opposition candidate in what was expected to be another tightly controlled election, one predestined to end with Mr. Lukashenko’s re-coronation as the country’s President.

But Mr. Lukashenko badly misjudged the mood in Belarus, where tens of thousands have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand an end to decades of repressive rule that has seen the country, one of the poorest in Europe, fall badly behind its neighbours. And he and his regime clearly underestimated his opponent.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya entered politics following the arrest of her husband Sergey, a popular blogger. He had intended to be the one challenging Mr. Lukashenko, but was jailed after attending opposition rallies. Standing in his place, Ms. Tikhanovskaya has not only united Belarus’s long-fractured opposition – with the support of two other leading female politicians – but her campaign has also drawn the largest crowds in the history of the former Soviet republic. “You can’t deny that our people want change,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said in an interview with Euronews this week. “It might not happen in a couple of days, maybe in September, October, or November, but our people do not want this President anymore.”

President Alexander Lukashenko, right, stands alongside his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at a June event honouring Second World War veterans in the Russian village of Khoroshevo.Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP/The Associated Press

Belarus, an often-forgotten country in the heart of Eastern Europe, is suddenly the centre of swirling intrigue, with Mr. Lukashenko – a longtime Kremlin ally – claiming in recent weeks that both the U.S. and Russia are seeking to depose him.

It’s a geopolitical tug-of-war with the potential to destabilize the entire region. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who views pro-democracy protests in other post-Soviet states as a potential threat to his own grip on power, responded to Ukraine’s 2014 uprising by sending troops to seize and annex the Crimean Peninsula, and supporting armed separatists in the country’s eastern Donbass region.

The official result of Sunday’s election isn’t in doubt. With the exception of the 1994 vote that brought Mr. Lukashenko to power, Belarusian elections have never been free or fair.

With few foreign observers allowed into the country (The Globe and Mail was among the organizations denied accreditation to cover the vote), the regime is expected to claim a sweeping, if highly dubious, victory.

That would give Mr. Lukashenko, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” a sixth term in office. But the opposition plans its own exit poll and has asked supporters to be ready to defend their vote on Sunday and afterwards – in the streets if necessary. The stage is set for a volatile confrontation between an unpopular regime and a society desperate for change.

“I’m afraid our elections will again be falsified and rigged,” said Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground artistic group that has added a creative flair to the protests in Minsk, the country’s capital city, and elsewhere.

“The question is, what will happen next? I personally think that Aug. 9 will not be the end, but the beginning of the process. It will not be possible to stop the protests and the mood.”

At top, a woman argues with police as they block a pro-Tsikhanouskaya rally in Slutsk under the pretext of road repairs. On the same day, at bottom, an officer leaves a polling booth in Hlybokaye where he voted in early ballots.Sergei Grits/The Associated Press; SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Lukashenko’s credibility has taken a beating over his handling the COVID-19 pandemic, which he dismissed for months as “a psychosis” – an affliction that the 65-year-old former collective farm boss said could be beaten with vodka and exercise – before admitting on July 28 that he had himself tested positive for the virus. Mr. Lukashenko has appeared physically weakened, though without a face mask, in recent appearances. The country’s official counts of 68,500 cases and 580 deaths are believed to be dramatic understatements.

Debilitated or not, Mr. Lukashenko seems to be bracing for conflict in the wake of Sunday’s vote. In a televised speech to the nation this week, he warned that foreign powers were plotting a “colour revolution” – a term that usually refers to the pro-Western uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia earlier this century – in Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people wedged between Russia and NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

He also repeated allegations that 33 Russian citizens who were detained late last month at a spa outside Minsk were mercenaries sent to destabilize the situation in Belarus. Mr. Lukashenko has claimed there are another 200 Russian mercenaries – who he says are members of the infamous Wagner private security company that has fought in Ukraine, Syria and Libya – at large in the country.

Mr. Lukashenko has suggested that the West is also interfering in Belarus, making it impossible to say who is plotting to oust him. “We don’t even know who they are – either the Americans with NATO or someone from Ukraine is pressing us or it might be that our eastern brothers [Russia] love us so much,” Mr. Lukashenko said on Thursday, adding that an unspecified number of American citizens had been arrested in the country ahead of the vote. “A hybrid war is underway against Belarus and we should expect dirty tricks from any side.”

Moscow has acknowledged that the men detained in Belarus were private security contractors, but says they were only at the sanatorium because they had missed a connecting flight to a third country. The Kremlin has accused Mr. Lukashenko – long a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin – of inventing a threat from Russia to boost his electoral chances. “It’s not only offensive, it’s very sad,” former president Dmitry Medvedev, who is now the head of Russia’s Security Council, said this week. “And it will entail sad consequences, too.”

But Mr. Lukashenko may be betting that – if there’s unrest following the election – Russia will prefer him nonetheless to the unknown quantity that is Ms. Tikhanovskaya. He spoke with Mr. Putin by phone on Friday and the Kremlin expressed confidence that tensions over the detention of the 33 mercenaries could be resolved.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya stands at a rally in Minsk between political allies Veronika Tsepkalo, left, and Maria Kolesnikova, right.Sergei Grits/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

As Mr. Lukashenko looks for foreign enemies, Ms. Tikhanovskaya has kept up a relentless campaign schedule, travelling the country flanked by her allies Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova. Like Ms. Tikhanovskaya, the other two women were also thrust into political leadership roles this year. Ms. Tsepkalo’s husband Valery fled to Russia after he was barred from running against Mr. Lukashenko, and threatened with criminal prosecution. Ms. Kolesnikova had served as the campaign manager for Viktor Babariko, another jailed opposition politician.

But where Belarus’s opposition leaders, all men until now, have frequently undermined their shared cause through infighting, the three women – whom their supporters refer to as “The Trio” – have stood shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder since a mid-July meeting, during which they decided in just 15 minutes that Ms. Tikhanovskaya should be the joint opposition candidate.

While Mr. Lukashenko has been dismissive of his new rival – he said during the campaign that a female president “would collapse, poor thing” – Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s nomination galvanized Belarusian society. A July 30 opposition rally in Minsk attracted more than 60,000 people, making it one of the biggest political gatherings in the country’s history. (The crowd would likely have been far larger if not for the pandemic.) The Trio have since kept up the momentum by holding impressively large rallies in smaller cities.

“What happened in Minsk is one thing. But when you see the same happening all across the country, it’s a big blow to [Mr. Lukashenko’s] reputation,” said Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist covering the campaign. While there had been other large opposition rallies in Minsk in past years, Mr. Lukashenko had always dismissed them as the grumblings of an urban elite, while claiming he had the backing of those living in the countryside.

“Wherever [Ms. Tikhanovskaya] goes, she gathers crowds. This is kind of scary for the authorities,” Ms. Liubakova said.

In what appeared to be a sign of growing unease inside the regime, Ms. Tikhanovskaya was forced to cancel a Thursday rally after her campaign chief was detained and warned that the gathering should not go ahead. The government said that an event to celebrate railroad workers had been booked for the same time and the same location. Opposition supporters descended on the venue anyway, and the government-hired DJs drew loud applause by playing Changes, a late Soviet-era protest anthem by Viktor Tsoi, that has become a staple at Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s rallies. The two DJs were arrested and charged with “hooliganism.”

Many supporters of Ms. Tikhanovskaya attended a festive concert organized by the authorities in Minsk on Aug. 6. Some flags at the event bore the Pahonia, a knight on horseback that was a former emblem of Belarus until Mr. Lukashenko's government scrapped it in the 1990s.SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Ms. Tikhanovskaya – a teacher and translator who has become an increasingly polished public speaker – has grown into the role of political leader during the campaign. As she emerged as a legitimate threat to the regime, she sent her two children out of Belarus for their protection.

“She’s a reluctant and accidental politician, but she’s becoming a politician, and people feel this,” Ms. Liubakova said. “People come out with portraits of her, and want to take photos with her … she’s a symbolic figure, but she’s more than a symbol.”

David Marples, a history professor at the University of Alberta who is an expert on Belarus, said that despite Mr. Lukashenko’s claims of foreign meddling, the excitement about Ms. Tikhanovskaya and The Trio stemmed from how badly Belarusians want to see change in their country, after 26 years of political repression and economic stagnation.

“You have a default candidate – the wife of one of the contenders – and she’s somehow managed to create this upsurge of support with very simple statements about the situation. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Prof. Marples said. “It’s a phenomenon. I don’t think it has anything to do with outside forces.”

TV screens project images of Mr. Lukashenko at an electronics store during his annual address to the people of Belarus on Aug. 4.Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters/Reuters

The worry now is how far Mr. Lukashenko might go to retain his grip on power if, as expected, the opposition takes to the streets to protest what they believe will be a rigged election on Sunday.

Mr. Lukashenko has repeatedly warned the opposition not to attempt a “Maidan” – referring to the 2014 revolution in neighbouring Ukraine. He has also raised the spectre of how the government in Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic, dealt with protests in 2005, when hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were shot and killed by security forces.

“I think he’s frightened, he’s genuinely frightened – and the question is, how many people are you prepared to shoot?” Prof. Marples said, adding that it was also unclear how Belarus’s police and army would respond to such an order.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya acknowledged that she’s wrestling with the same concern. She has said that she will not call her supporters into the streets on Sunday – but will join them if they do decide to protest. “I know that our government can do anything,” she said. “I don’t want people to be shot… I don’t want to be shot myself. But [challenging the regime in the streets] will be our people’s decision, not mine.”

Sergei Grits/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

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