Belarusian author and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich has thrown her support behind an upstart female challenger in next month's presidential election, and urged authoritarian incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka to ensure the ballot is free and fair.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Alexievich said that Lukashenka, who has held office since 1994 through votes that international observers said fell short of democratic standards, faced a "new generation" that wants fair elections and responsible governance.
She spoke ahead of an August 9 election that analysts say poses the most serious challenge yet to Lukashenka, whose standing with the populace has been undermined by what many in the country of 9.5 million say is his fumbling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Belarus has one of the highest per capita infection rates in Europe and Lukashenka, who in March dismissed the pandemic as "mass psychosis," has refused to institute lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus.
"Lukashenka thought that he could deceive this silent society, that he could tell tales, scare them with fear. Nothing like that happened," Alexievich said in the interview on July 22. "A new generation has grown up [and] middle-aged people have regained their consciousness. These are not the same people who existed 26 years ago, when Lukashenka began to rule."
Alexievich said that she would vote for Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, one of four candidates approved by Belarus's Central Election Commission to challenge Lukashenka in the election.
Tsikhanouskaya has formed an alliance with the campaigns of two would-be candidates who were barred from the ballot by election officials on what they say are baseless, political grounds, Viktar Babaryka and Valer Tsapkala.
Tsikhanouskaya's husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, a vlogger who called on Belarusians to squash the "cockroach" Lukashenka with their bedroom slippers, was ruled out in an earlier stage of the process, and is now in jail facing charges of planning mass unrest.
Tsikhanouskaya's new allies in the race are represented by two other women, Veranika Tsapkala, who headed her husband's rejected campaign, and Maryya Kalesnikava, who led Babaryka's effort.
The alliance appears to have boosted her chances in the vote, while highlighting the leading role women in Belarus have seized ahead of the vote that many experts say will alter the country's landscape regardless of the vote outcome.
Women Rising To The Challenge
Alexievich, 72, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015 for a body of work that includes journalistic explorations of 20th-century calamities that hit Belarus and other former Soviet republics, such as World War II and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The author told RFE/RL that when the times have demanded it, women in Belarus have answered the call, from the days of a 12th-century Orthodox Christian saint to the present. Often, however, the role of women and their contribution to Belarusian history has been overlooked or forgotten, Alexievich said.
"When I wrote The Unwomanly Face Of War, about how millions of women fought in [World War II], I became convinced that women are at the forefront of their society," she said. "They made sacrifices on the altar of victory, and after the war it was not appreciated and forgotten by the state and the people. I'd like that something like that doesn't happen again."
She said Belarusian women were again rising to a fresh challenge. "The authorities acted dishonestly, and all the interesting candidates [who are] men were either put in jail or denied the right to take part in the election. And then all of a sudden there was an unexpected development. Women took upon themselves the burden of the men," Alexievich said.
Alexievich said she had favored Babaryka, who is now in jail on embezzlement charges that he and supporters dismiss as politically motivated. She now backs Tsikhanouskaya, in part due to the strength of her vow to hold an "honest" rerun of the vote if elected.
"In the current situation, I will vote for Tsikhanouskaya, who has promised to transfer power," she said. "She herself is not ready to govern and didn't consider that. But given the situation, she promised to transfer power, and I would vote for her."
'Nobody Wants Blood'
Alexievich said that in the face of the risk of police violence, the numbers of Belarusians turning out to sign petitions backing rivals of Lukashenka -- and to protest the hundreds of detentions and the barring of candidates -- testified to their resolve to seek justice.
More than 1,100 people have been detained by the police in Belarus since May, a Belarusian NGO has estimated, amid warnings and calls from Western countries and international organizations, including the United Nations, to halt the crackdown.
Belarusians must work together to make certain that the "people's voice" is heard on August 9, Alexievich said. "We need to figure out how to stop cheating when the votes are counted. It is imperative that the voice of the people, the voice of the power of the people, breaks through this barrier."
Apparently referring to Tsikhanouskaya, Tsapkala, and Kalesnikava, she said that high levels of support for "these girls" will ensure peaceful change in the country.
"If there are many of us, if we give these girls our support, then the changes that will take place will occur peacefully. If there are few of us, then anything can happen. We all want peaceful change. And no matter how provoked by the authorities, we must not succumb to such provocations," Alexievich said.
Lukashenka, she said, must ensure the vote is free and fair to avoid possible post-election turmoil. "There must be fair elections so that there is no blood. And this is his responsibility to history. Nobody wants blood. I hope he doesn't want it either," she said.