New wave of Belarus opposition wants to oust strongman president


Minsk (AFP)

Just a year after the launch of his channel, Belarusian vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky has galvanised a new movement ahead of this summer's polls, aiming to unseat the country's strongman leader.

The campaign against President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has stirred interest toward the polls in the country, where they are often a formality.

It has also led to the prosecution of 41-year-old Tikhanovsky, who could be facing prison in the ex-Soviet country tucked between Russia and the European Union.

His popularity stems from his channel "A Country for Life", which has amassed around 230,000 subscribers with clips about corruption, the court system and police abuse.

He also coined a new insult for Lukashenko when he called him a "cockroach".

"It's been 26 years since the dictator is leading the country with criminal incompetence and negligence," Tikhanovsky said in a video from May 7, which he made after a year of travelling the country to meet ordinary people.

"2020 is the year of change, stop the cockroach!" Tikhanovsky said.

But he could not file his presidential bid papers in time due to being under arrest for a protest early last month, so his wife Svetlana stepped in his place.

She says she has collected 100,000 signatures to qualify for running in August polls.

It will be up to the country's election commission to decide whether she can stand against Lukashenko.

- Cries of foul play -

The Belarusian leader, once called the "last dictator" in Europe, has already indicated he will have none of it.

"Our society is not ready to vote for a woman," he said on May 29.

That same day, Tikhanovsky was in Grodno gathering signatures for his wife's campaign, when he was approached by two policemen.

One of them fell among the crowd, according to footage of the incident, but Tikhanovsky was swiftly arrested and charged for using "violence" against the two officers.

As he faces a potential jail term of six years if convicted, he and his supporters denounce what they say was a "set up" to get rid of a political foe.

Police searched the Tikhanovskys' flat and summer home in the country on Wednesday, claiming they seized $900,000.

But Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says they never had this kind of money.

Since 1994, the Belarusian opposition has been unable to get a foothold on political power. A number of candidates have spent long terms in jail, and not a single dissenting voice gained a seat in parliament in the 2019 polls.

- 'Vote of no confidence' -

The opposition's drive this year is markedly different in style from the incumbent's traditional Soviet approach to campaigning, which he does on visits to factories and farms.

Belarusians who queue for hours to leave signatures in support of opposition candidates are effectively giving Lukashenko a vote of no confidence, said Alexander Klaskovsky, an analyst working for the privately-owned BelaPan news agency.

"The arrest of Sergei Tikhanovsky has only stoked the fire," he told AFP.

Police arrested dozens of others last weekend, including Lukashenko's former rival Mikola Statkevich, who spent several years in jail after running for president in 2010.

Some of this year's opposition candidates come from the establishment, such as arts patron Viktor Babaryko, a former banker who headed a subsidiary of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant.

Campaigning on a business rights platform, Babaryko harshly criticises the country's economic system, controlled overwhelmingly by the state and a pawn in conflicts over politics and energy with its much larger neighbour Russia.

Lukashenko has accused Babaryko of making his money fraudulently and hinted he is funded by Moscow, wanting to "privatise" Belarus.

A third high-profile critic who has entered the fray is Valery Tsepkalo, a former senior diplomat.

Artyom Shraibman from the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank says that it will be surprising if Babaryko and Tsepkalo are not arrested after the election.

Since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, he says, "nearly every member of Belarusian elite who shifted to the opposition... did not avoid prison".

This year, if their campaign ends differently "that will be a precedent", he told AFP.