A few months ago, she was a homemaker raising two kids and living in the shadow of her husband, an outspoken vlogger with presidential ambitions who was crisscrossing Belarus railing against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Today, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya is running for president herself in place of her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who is in jail on charges that he and supporters say were meant to silence him and quash his bid to unseat the 65-year-old Lukashenka, in power since 1994.
The accidental candidate now finds herself at the forefront of a fresh female political wave that a growing number of Belarusians hope can bring in a democratic tide to the Eastern European country of some 9.5 million.
Political novice Tsikhanouskaya, 38, has teamed up with two other women who led the campaign drives of two would-be challengers who were barred from the ballot in the August 9 election on what they contend were spurious grounds.
On July 19, Tsikhanouskaya spoke before thousands of people at rallies in Minsk and a nearby suburb, flanked by Veranika Tsapkala, who headed the campaign of husband Valer, a former ambassador to Washington and founder of Minsk's High Tech Park, and Maryya Kalesnikava, who led the stymied campaign of Viktar Babaryka, former board chairman at Russian-owned Belgazprombank.
Tsapkala and Babaryka were widely deemed the most serious challengers to Lukashenka. On top of having his bid rejected, Babaryka is now in jail facing embezzlement charges that he and supporters dismiss as politically motivated. The authorities have seized control of Belgazprombank.
Bringing New Hope
Despite dominating all echelons of power, Lukashenka is now facing what looks like the greatest challenge to his more-than-quarter-century rule. Trust in the authoritarian president has taken a blow after he downplayed the coronavirus pandemic as nothing more than a "psychosis" that could be warded off with vodka, a tractor ride, or a visit to a sauna. With infections spiraling upward, the economy nosedived, with the World Bank predicting a 4 percent contraction this year.
Belarusians have mockingly branded Lukashenka "Sasha 3 percent," a stinging reference to his reported low opinion-poll ratings. Before his jailing, Tsikhanouski was leading rallies of Belarusians, many armed with slippers to squash Lukashenka, whom he called a "cockroach." His YouTube channel exposing graft and corruption, A Country For Living, has more than 200,000 subscribers.
Amid growing public disillusionment, Tsikhanouskaya's joining forces with Tsapkala and Kalesnikava not only signaled women's rising role in Belarusian politics, but offered fresh hope, said Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian journalist and commentator.
"It's a very important, symbolic step because it gives the supporters of these candidates, and, in principle, the protesting electorate, some kind of positive signal after the wave of repression, which left many disillusioned. Now a certain enthusiasm, drive, positiveness, a constructive agenda has returned," Shraibman told Current Time on July 16.
Family, Sexual Threats
With two female candidates on the August 9 presidential ballot and many other women involved, Lukashenka has taken the tack of castigating women instead of courting them. He has suggested they aren't fit for the top political job and has proposed that army service -- largely an all-boys club in Belarus -- be mandatory for any future president.
Besides badmouthing them, Lukashenka has used more sinister methods to dissuade woman from joining the rising opposition political movement in Belarus.
The authorities are targeting women with gender-specific reprisals, including threats to take their children into state custody and threats of sexual violence, according to Amnesty International.
"Insatiable in their intention to silence their political opponents and any form of dissent, the Belarusian authorities are wheeling out practices that smack of misogyny. They are deliberately targeting women involved in politics or female family members of political activists, including with open discrimination and threats of sexual violence," said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International's Eastern Europe and Central Asia director.
Tsikhanouskaya herself has sent her children abroad to an undisclosed location in the European Union after receiving threats they would be taken away unless she quit the race, Natallya Radzina, editor in chief of Charter 97, an opposition website, said on July 20. "We brought the kids out because they genuinely threatened her. They threatened to arrest her and take away her kids," Radzina said in a video posted on YouTube.
The Belarusian news website Tut.by quoted Tsikhanouskaya as saying her 4-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son were in a "safe place."
Her improbable campaign run began on June 19, when the Central Election Commission approved her initiative group's bid to collect signatures to get on the ballot. That came four days after the same commission rejected her husband's petition as he sat in jail, arrested on a charge of holding unsanctioned rallies with supporters. It came amid a wave of arbitrary arrests of over 120 peaceful protesters, as Human Rights Watch reported.
Tsikhanouskaya was initially hesitant about running, releasing a video in June in which, fighting back tears, she said she had received an anonymous phone call threatening that her children would be taken away unless she abandoned her campaign.
Overall, some 1,140 people have been arbitrarily detained by the police during the election campaign, according to estimates from the Belarusian human rights NGO Vyasna (Spring).
Lukashenka has compared the protesters to criminal gangs and accused outsiders, including Russia, Poland, and the West, of stirring up trouble, while vowing there would be no repeat in Belarus of the 2014 Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine, where a Moscow-friendly president was driven from power by massive protests.
Uniting The Opposition
Tsikhanouskaya told Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, that her new alliance with Kalesnikava and Tsapkala had given her both confidence and energy.
"During the entire campaign, there have been moments when I wanted to give up, because it was morally very difficult, very hard physically. I think that I would try hard, but I could not be sure I wouldn't give up under certain conditions. Now, of course, I've got the support of my colleagues. And I hope with their support, with their help I will carry on. That we will persevere to victory."
Tsapkala said she and Kalesnikava can offer Tsikhanouskaya the political expertise they have honed. "Expertise and resources, because we...have fully formed [campaign] headquarters. We have a team of people who are ready to work together to achieve one goal. That is why we have united," Tsapkala said in her comments on July 17, adding that they also had legal teams that can help Tsikhanouskaya's campaign.
Kalesnikava said women were stepping forward despite continuing efforts to Lukashenka to hold them back. "In Belarus 55 percent of voters are women – more than half. That means that our voice should be heard. In this way, they are trying to exclude us from the political process," Kalesnikava told Current Time.
Minsk-based political analyst Valer Karbalevich said that uniting campaigns may prove easier than uniting electorates. "This is where I see a specific problem, because the supporters of Svyatlana and Syarhey Tsikhanouski and the supporters of Viktar Babaryka and Valer Tsapkala are very different," Karbalevich told Current Time.
Tsikhanouskaya has said that if elected she would order a rerun vote, including all the barred candidates. "This would be a rational decision that supporters of Babaryka and Tsapkala would support," Karbalevich said, and the call for an "honest" revote was one of the five points in a joint statement from the campaigns of Tsikhanouskaya, Babaryka, and Tsapkala on July 16.
Can A Woman Take The Lead?
Belarusian writer and journalist Yulia Charnyauskaya sees Tsikhanouskaya, along with Kalesnikava and Tsapkala, as part of a new generation of Belarusian women.
In the past, women "were always forced to function according to men's rules because political scenarios didn't consider women; they had a fairly skewed structure," Charnyauskaya told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. But these women have now "been able to achieve something that men couldn't -- even those with the most noble of intentions."
Nina Stuzhynskaya, a Belarusian women's rights activist, said women taking a leading role in politics in Belarus was long overdue. "I think Belarusian society has long been ripe for a woman in a leadership role," she said, adding that while "women have thus far been in secondary roles...they've done a lot to ensure that politics has a strong female component -- then and now," Stuzhynskaya told RFE/RL. "The appearance of these women in the public arena is a beautiful thing; it's encouraging and optimistic."
Tsikhanouskaya is not the only female candidate in the race. Hanna Kanapatskaya, who was an opposition member in parliament from 2016 to 2019, is also on the ballot. Despite her opposition bona fides, many analysts have dismissed her as a spoiler candidate.
Karbalevich believes that Lukashenka allowed Tsikhanouskaya into the presidential race because he calculated that she did not pose a threat. "Lukashenka doesn't view her as a rival, doesn't see any danger in her," the analyst said. "He thinks that if Belarusians are forced to choose between voting for a housewife or...for a wiser, more experienced politician, then even those who are skeptical of him will...vote for him."
He may have miscalculated, according Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian analyst based in Sweden, who said that Tsikhanouskaya could pose a threat because Lukashenka's plummeting public support makes him vulnerable.
"A significant number of Belarusians are pretty much ready to vote for anyone but Lukashenka," Rudnik said in e-mailed comments to RFE/RL.