A rally-concert on the evening of July 30 to support Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the only remaining candidate of the opposition in the Belarusian presidential race, attracted an enormous crowd of 63,000 people to the Friendship of Peoples park on the outskirts of Minsk, according to the NGO ControlBY.
The size of the crowd was unprecedented by Belarusian standards and observers claimed that it was the biggest political gathering since the country’s independence in 1991.
Ordinary Belarusians flocked to the out of the way venue, deliberately chosen by the authorities to try to keep the crowd size down. There was a greater police presence, which forced participants to pass through security checks and metal detectors due to the “heightened security situation” following the arrest of 33 Russian mercenaries earlier this week that were plotting to destabilise the country, according to the security services.
However, observers say that the arrests were more likely just a ruse by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who is looking increasingly desperate to shore up his position ahead of the August 9 presidential election in the face of the swelling popularity for Tikhanovskaya’s candidacy.
Yet despite the authorities' attempt to make the rally as difficult to get to and inconvenient as possible, the ordinary people of the capital flocked to the park, where there was a party atmosphere.
“Anything Lukashenka is doing right now – works against him, and re-confirms that he is weak. He revealed the terror group working in Belarus, bombers, snipers... people must be frightened. Instead, people make memes and massively go to protest,” tweeted Franak Viacorka, a PhD student in London who follows Ukraine.
The crowd was predominately made up of younger Belarusians in their 20s and 30s. They passed through the enhanced security checks before entering the park without incident and thousands more waiting to get in listened to the speeches from outside the perimeter.
Some of the participants were waving Belarusian national flags – a symbol of the opposition movement which is firmly nationalistic and campaigning on a platform of no union state with Russia – but no political banners were visible in the hands of the young people. Facemasks were widespread, as the country is still suffering from one of the worst coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemics in the region.
The PA blasted out popular songs that had the crowd singing and dancing along.
Considering she was little more than a housewife and mother a month ago, Tikhanovskaya has stepped into her role of the unifying political force for the nation’s opposition with impressive confidence. She has played on her diminutive role, which is part of her appeal for a people tired of the 25-year rule of Lukashenko.
“I’m not standing to win power. I’m standing to seek justice,” Tikhanovskaya told the crowd. Her speech, and those of the other members of her campaign team that represent the other jailed opposition candidates, were peppered with personal stories of harassment, arrest and misuse of power by the authorities rather than grand statements of ideology.
"This is so inspiring! [Wife of an opposition leader now in exile in Russia with their children] Veronika Tsepkala was the star tonight, with her emotional story of how Lukashenka’s people had tortured her mother at her death bed. If her speech didn’t inspire Belarusians to get out and do something, I don’t know what would,” tweeted Sergei Polevikov, a Belarusian observer.
Tikhanovskaya has said if she is elected she will immediately call fresh parliamentary and presidential elections to allow for a free and fair elections to install a truly democratic government. She has joined forced with the wives of two other jailed opposition leaders and they have a practical agenda of getting Lukashenko out of power and then resetting the system to a more democratic mode, rather than having a reform platform of their own.
“The trio doesn't have a particular ideology but agreed on common values: electoral democracy and sovereignty of Belarus (no Union with Russia). On more controversial issues – they answer: [the] new parliament will decide,” Viacorka tweeted.
In addition to immediately calling for fresh elections, Tikhanovskaya says she will also rapidly call a referendum and return the country to the 1994 constitution that includes term limits for presidents.
And she took the fight to Lukashenko earlier in the day, challenging the incumbent to a one-on-one televised debate ahead of the elections. The president is almost certain to refuse and has already dismissed Tikhanovskaya as “just a housewife” but by refusing he makes himself look weak, say Belarus’ observers, leaving Tikhanovskaya with the moral high ground.
But despite the heady atmosphere that was reminiscent of the early rallies on Maidan Square in Kyiv during the 2014 revolution of dignity, the threat of a brutal crackdown after the elections looms large over the opposition’s campaign. Lukashenko has met with the military three times in the last month and the state television has broadcast troops outside Minsk being trained in anti-riot techniques in a move clearly designed to intimidate would-be protestors.
In her address to the rally participants, Tikhanovskaya appealed to the Belarusian state security agencies to exercise restraint.
“Your actions compel your children, mothers and sisters to leave their home and come out on the streets. There is no need to beat them. The people are out just to express their views…People who yearn for a decent life are not criminals. Neither those who are supporting an alternative presidential candidate…Please do not exercise force against your own people, your own nation,” she pleaded.
Having brought up the authorities’ allegation earlier the day that her husband, Sergei Tikhanovski, whose detention was extended this week into September, is ostensibly linked to the Russian mercenaries apprehended near Minsk on July 29, she insisted almost tearfully that was a lie: “Sergei is not a criminal!”
The Russians, who were apprehended near Minsk, were to instigate mass riots during the rally in support of Tikhanovskaya, Minsk officials hinted to the state-controlled media organisation BELTA.
The security services almost instantly linked the arrest of the mercenaries to Tikhanovski, who they claim was co-operating with them to foment unrest ahead of the election, and have brought fresh charges against him for sedition that carry up to 12 years in jail.
He faces criminal charges specified by Part 3, Article 130 of the Criminal Code on suspicion of committing deliberate acts intended to instigate other social enmity, on suspicion of calling for violent and aggressive actions against law enforcement personnel. Apart from that, Tikhanovski faces charges specified by Article 13 and Part 2 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code upon suspicion of preparations for mass riots.
Russia offended by “odious” claims
The Russian foreign ministry strenuously denied the claims that it had anything to do with the mercenaries or that they had plans to destabilise Belarus. It issued a statement calling the claims “odious,” but scrupulously avoided calling the 33 men anything other than “Russian citizens.”
“The odious interpretation by the Belarusian side of the detention of 33 Russian citizens does not stand up to criticism. As of today, we know that this group was in transit through Minsk to Istanbul, having in hand all the necessary documents, including air tickets. All logistics on the territory of Belarus were provided by a Belarusian company. For unknown reasons, the group did not get on its Minsk-Istanbul flight and had to stay in Belarus while waiting for the Belarusian company to purchase new air tickets,” the Russian foreign ministry said in its statement. “An attempt to present what happened as external interference in the affairs of the republic is at least bewildering. The Belarusian authorities, including the aviation authorities, have all the necessary documents at their disposal to establish the truth.”
The Russian ambassador to Belarus, Dmitry Mezentsev, confirmed that the mercenaries were in transit and said explicitly that the Belarus’ authorities were informed of their presence and indeed they had contracted a local company to make the travel arrangements.
“According to information that has yet to be confirmed, the Russians may be employees of a private security company, which ... has been commissioned to guard energy infrastructure and resources abroad but certainly not in Belarus,” Mezentsev said in a statement.
As bne IntelliNews reported, there is considerable of confusion over who the men are and who they work for. However, analysts are unanimous that they were not in Minsk to organise some sort of coup on behalf of the opposition.
The incident will only strain Moscow-Minsk relations further, which have already suffered a lot of damage after Russia started withdrawing its generous energy subsidies early this year as part of its so-called “tax manoeuvre.”
Police keep up the pressure
And the police are keeping up the pressure with a continuous stream of arrests. On the evening of July 29, Pyotr Markelau, an activist of the Youth Bloc, was detained near the pre-trial detention centre #1 in Minsk, where many of the political prisoners and opposition leaders are being held.
Markelau and his friends came to support political prisoner Dzmitry Furmanau’s mother and girlfriend, who had been on hunger strike on a park bench outside the detention centre in Valadarski Street since July 26. The policemen bundled the activist into a van and drove him away.
Furmanau, 35, was detained on May 29 during a picket to collect signatures for the nomination of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as a candidate for presidency. He was a regional co-ordinator. Sergei Tikhanovski and his associates were arrested on the same day.
Furmanau has been charged under Part 1, Article 342 (organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order) of the Criminal Code.
Political technologist Vitaly Shklyarov was also arrested in Belarus on July 29. He managed to make a one-word post on Telegram: “I’ve been arrested,” he said.
Later, state-run TV station ONT TV reported that Shklyarov "had mobilised Tikhanovski’s protest electorate around himself." On July 30, Andrei Ravkov, Secretary of the Security Council, stated that more than 200 militants had come to Belarus to “destabilise the situation during the election campaign”, although only 33 were detained.
The Minsk rally has been the high point of Tikhanovskaya’s campaign so far. The elections are now nine days away but the consensus is that Lukashenko will simply fix the results to ensure he wins.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) has already introduced restrictions on election observers, effectively banning any independent observers from participating. The OECD has also been rebuffed and there will be in effect no independent observation of the vote.
Moreover, the CEC has excluded all non-state media from the press centre where the votes will be counted and released. Independent journalists will simply be given the final result the next day and will be unable to scrutinise the results.
Tikhanovskaya has called on all Belarusians to vote, but also to “defend” their vote after the election; calling for protests is illegal under Belarusian law. Unions at leading state-owned enterprises have also said they will organise mass strikes if the vote is seen as having been stolen.
In an indication of what is to be expected, the leading state-owned broadcaster commissioned a poll this week that showed Lukashenko winning 72% of the vote and Tikhanovskaya taking 7.5%. It’s impossible to tell what Lukashenko’s true share of the vote is, but observers say their best guess is Lukashenko enjoys about 35%, largely from the older generation that are grateful he managed to avoid much of the pain from the collapse of the Soviet Union, paid for with those Russian energy subsidies.
It is also unclear what level of support Tikhanovskaya enjoys in the general population, but her campaign has matured with astonishing speed. According to reports, ethnic Belarusians from around the world have come to her aid. Programmers at Microsoft in the US, professors at Harvard and Belarusian professionals from the gamut of professions have helped with producing campaign videos, audio and visual displays at rallies and the design of the campaign logos among other things that are all slick and effective. Whatever her poll numbers are, Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has already gathered inspiring momentum.