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Lukashenko: Soviet-style autocrat on Europe's doorstep

Opposition candidate Tikhanovskaya says Belarus 'waking up'

08 August, 10:52
(ANSA-AFP) - MINSK, 08 AGO - Strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled over ex-Soviet Belarus for nearly three decades, is facing down the greatest challenge to his rule yet ahead of presidential elections on Sunday. In the run-up to the vote in which Lukashenko will seek a sixth term, protests have erupted across the country straddling Russia and Europe, with 37-year-old stay-at-home-mother Svetlana Tikhanovskaya emerging as his toughest rival. Critics have mocked Lukashenko, claiming his approval ratings have hit single digits and nicknamed the 65-year-old authoritarian leader "Sasha 3 percent." One of Lukashenko's would-be rivals, Tikhanovskaya's husband Sergei, dubbed the famously mustachioed Lukashenko "the cockroach" and his supporters waved slippers at protests to symbolise stamping out his rule. In response, Lukashenko, who is Europe's longest serving leader, jailed his main rivals including Tikhanovsky and told opponents not to call him names. "Insulting people is not allowed in any country in the world," he said at a meeting with Belarusians in late June. "Do you really believe that a sitting president can have a 3-percent rating?" During an animated address to the nation this week, Lukashenko wiped sweat from his brow as he accused the opposition of planning mass riots in the capital Minsk and urged voters to renew his tenure to stave off a revolution. "All kinds of arrows, poisoned and COVID-ridden, are targeted at Lukashenko in order to bring him down, humiliate him, stamp on him, and destroy him," he told the packed auditorium of officials, church leaders and military personnel.

The surprise opposition candidate mounting the most serious challenge in years to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Friday that her country was waking up, but warned the strongman planned to rig the vote. "People are waking up, rediscovering their self-respect," 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya told AFP in an interview in central Minsk.

Tikhanovskaya decided to run after her 41-year-old blogger husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, ended up in jail and could not submit his own presidential bid in time. She said she expected Lukashenko, in power since 1994, to rig Sunday's election. "We won't be able to prevent falsifications. We've seen over the past couple of days how brazenly this election is being falsified. There is no hope that they will count honestly. We have to be realistic." Early voting began in the ex-Soviet country of 9.5 million people on Tuesday, with official turnout over the past three days already at more than 22 percent. She said the opposition would conduct an alternative count and would know if the election had been rigged, but said she would not urge her supporters to take to the streets. "At this stage each one has to decide for himself," she said, warning that Lukashenko would only encourage protests by quashing dissent.

"They are doing everything for the peaceful protests to become bloody ones. And I don't want this." (ANSA-AFP).

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