Already in power for over 25 years, 65-year-old Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” displays no public concern about the four official candidates he will face in Belarus’ August 9 presidential election.
All born in the late Soviet era, their stated views on how the country should be run have little in common with those of Lukashenka, a former collective farm director who, alone among Belarus' then parliamentary deputies, opposed the Soviet Union's 1991 dissolution.
How much support currently exists for the president, now under pressure for his denial of the coronavirus pandemic, cannot accurately be quantified. No independent polls exist in Belarus.
Over the past few months, though, rights activists both within and outside the country have condemned as intimidation tactics the detention of other potential candidates, their supporters, bloggers critical of the president, and, occasionally, journalists (including from RFE/RL) covering the election.
On July 14, the European Union protested that “the Belarusian authorities have failed to ensure a meaningful and competitive political contest" when election officials denied the registration of two candidates -- recently jailed banker Viktar Babaryka and former ambassador to the United States Valer Tsapkala.
Police in Minsk have since cracked down harshly against those calling for Babaryka and Tsapkala's registration, reportedly detaining hundreds.
Lukashenka has urged international observers to come and monitor the vote, but cautioned them not “to show us, with a raised finger, how to live.”
He has stated to government-run broadcaster Belarus-1 that he expects an "interesting" election, and an even "more interesting" post-election period.
Current Time briefly profiled the four registered candidates who will contest Lukashenka’s rule.
Syarhey Cherachan, 35: In It For The Experience
The head of investment-consulting firm C58 Technologies, Syarhey Cherachan apparently knows an effective logo when he sees one: Placing “Che” on everything from coffee cups to key rings, he has adapted for his own campaign the “Ze” motif of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won Ukraine’s presidency in 2019 by a landslide.
Cherachan, the head of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, says his aim is to turn Belarus into “a country of possibilities,” whose citizens are the envy of “other countries’ schoolchildren and students, workers and businessmen, young families and pensioners.”
In line with that thinking, he does not conceal that he is running for president to “gain experience.”
Cherachan, an ex-crisis-management specialist, has already had one puzzling experience with the Central Election Commission that some might term educational. His candidacy was registered with more than 42,600 signatures of support than he submitted. (An official candidacy requires 100,000 signatures.) As she did for another candidate, CEC Chairwoman Lidiya Ermoshina blamed Cherachan’s volunteers.
His campaign platform runs the gamut of political positions: from suspending the death penalty and trial by jury to adopting a law on animal rights (“based on the experience of European countries”) and doing away with Belarus’ Soviet-style, mandatory work assignments for specialists who graduated from public universities.
Echoing Belarus’ official claims of foreign-policy neutrality, Cherachan wants the country to build strong ties with Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union, alike.
At the same time, he also has emphasized rediscovering Belarus’ roots: He has called for the restoration of its pre-Soviet flag and national emblem as well as “preserving” the Belarusian language. His own campaign site -- to date, the only one among the five candidates -- only uses Russian, however.
His interest in the past, though, apparently has its limits. Under “Biography,” his campaign site just mentions Cherachan’s 2016 bid for parliament from Minsk. He represented the Communist Party, which he left a year later.
Andrey Dzmitryeu, 41: The Case For 'Solidarity'
The co-chairman of Belarus’ Tell the Truth movement, Andrey Dzmitryeu’s low-key campaign -- as yet, no official website, big events or announcements -- has led to claims that he is acting as President Lukashenka’s “spoiler;” a candidate not in the race to win, but to shape the outcome.
But Dzmitryeu, a veteran critic of Belarus’ leader, sees his campaign as just the opposite: “This is not, today, about this campaign,” he said in a July 14 interview with Current Time. “This campaign, first of all, is a campaign of solidarity with all those Belarusians who want to elect a new president. This is a campaign of solidarity with political prisoners.”
Dzmitryeu, who has never before held elected office, has pledged to secure the release of imprisoned banker Viktar Babaryka, bloggers Syarhey Tsikhanouski and Ihor Losik, among others. He supports the rights of Babaryka, Tsikhanouski, and Valer Tsapkala to run for president.
In that, he sees no competition for himself. Lukashenka’s main rival, he commented, is “the majority of Belarusians who want to elect a new president.”
To that effect, he said, his campaign has begun to discuss with other candidates how to coordinate efforts to have independent observers monitor the election.
He charges that the government has used prosecutions and pressure campaigns against Lukashenka’s opponents to discourage voting or the thought that the Belarusian president can be defeated.
But Belarus, he maintains, has only regressed since President Lukashenka’s last reelection, in 2015.
“Instead of development and reform, we’ve gotten a situation with eternal stagnation, enemies among our citizens, boorishness, and irresponsible policy during the coronavirus [pandemic,” he charged in an interview with RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service. “That’s why these elections are important to us.”
Hanna Kanapatskaya, 43: 'Deeply Structural Reforms'
A former parliamentary deputy, lawyer Hanna Kanapatskaya is no stranger to the risks of Belarusian politics.
In 2016, then a veteran member of the center-right United Civic Party, Kanapatskaya was elected to the lower house of Belarus’ National Assembly as one of only two opposition candidates -- the first in 20 years. After a fallout with her party, she stepped down in 2019.
She claims that Belarusians’ loss of faith in their government sparked her run for president.
Although Kanapatskaya does not appear to have posted online a detailed campaign platform, she asserted on July 13 that Lukashenka and she are the only “serious politicians” in the race, TUT.by reported.
She sees other “only” qualities as well: In a July 14 interview with Current Time, Kanapatskaya identified herself as the only candidate “not linked to Russian puppeteers;” the only candidate financing her own campaign; the only candidate able to unite politicians of disparate beliefs, and the only "opposition, pro-European politician" competing against Lukashenka.
Her attitude toward Lukashenka’s other opponents, however, has led to claims that Kanapatskaya is the president’s “spoiler” for the election.
In a June interview with the independent TV channel Belsat, Kanapatskaya dismissed would-be candidate Viktar Babaryka, the former head of the Gazprom-owned Belgazprombank, as a “Gazprom manager” who “cannot be the president of our country,” just like “a pedophile cannot be a kindergarten teacher.”
Kanapatskaya, however, adamantly rejected the “spoiler” label, stressing to Current Time that her actions and past work in parliament demonstrate that she is “a real opposition politician.”
“All of my activity is aimed at carrying out deeply structural reforms in Belarus: in the political sphere, the economic sphere, the social sphere,” she said.
An active Facebooker, she has posted a photo of herself at a traditional sauna steaming away “the dirt” of her detractors’ criticism.
That criticism, of late, has also come from CEC Chairwoman Ermoshkina, who blamed Kanapatskaya’s campaign volunteers for a 36,588-person surplus in the number of voters recorded as supporting her candidacy's registration. The candidate herself told reporters she could not recall how many signatures had been submitted to the CEC.
Some media, though, appear to identify Kanaptaskaya based more on her father, than on her own campaign. Bread-factory and poultry-farm owner Anatoly Trukhanovich, 72, is often touted as Belarus’ “first dollar millionaire” or its “legal millionaire.” At one point, he helped finance the United Civic Party, members of which support his daughter’s presidential campaign.
Trukhanovich suggested on July 14 that he sees no chance for his daughter to defeat the hard-line Lukashenka, but, he commented to TUT.by, “let her try in good faith.”
Kanapatskaya, though, shows no sign of such doubts. On July 10, she posted on Facebook that, at a meeting with ambassadors from the European Union and United Kingdom, she had discussed what dress to wear to the presidential inauguration.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 37: For Her Husband's Sake
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a homemaker raising two children under the age of 12, repeatedly emphasizes that she has no political ambitions for herself. Her campaign is all about her husband, jailed YouTube vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski.
“I’d like to live my quiet life. But without Syarhey, it won’t be a life like that,” she has said, Deutsche Welle reported.
Educated to teach English and German, Tsikhanouskaya has worked as a translator, a secretary, and “here and there,” she told the independent broadcaster Belsat.
Tsikhanouskaya decided to campaign for president this May, when Belarus’ Central Election Commission, citing paperwork problems, refused to register an organization to support her 41-year-old husband’s potential candidacy.
His popular Strana dlya Zhizni (Country for Life) YouTube channel provides a steady stream of government criticism. His anti-Lukashenka slogan "Stop the cockroach!" did not likely further endear him to the president.
After refusing to answer a woman’s question at a signature drive for his wife, Tsikhanouski, just out of jail for alleged administrative offenses, was again detained on May 29, when a scuffle between police and his supporters broke out. In a regular prison since June 13, the vlogger has been charged with grossly disturbing public order and also with interfering with the work of election commissions.
Lukashenka claims that he senses no challenge from the vlogger's replacement at the polls. He has bluntly dismissed Tsikhanouskaya's chances, telling factory workers in May that the constitution does not accommodate a female president and that Belarusian society “is not ready to vote for a woman.”
“Because under our constitution, the president has strong power,” he asserted.
Nonetheless, despite allegedly earlier receiving threatening phone calls about her candidacy, Tsikhanouskaya has opted to continue. On July 14 ,she repeated that she is running for president for her husband's sake, “and those who believed him,” reported TUT.by.
“I believe that he will not break,” she said.
Editor's Note: This article earlier stated that Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya was 38 years old at the time of her candidacy's registration. Her correct age was 37.