Who Is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarus’s Unlikely Opposition Leader?
Who Is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarus’s Unlikely Opposition Leader?
When Svyeta, then age 12, arrived in rural Ireland from Belarus in the mid-1990s, it was her strong grasp of English and her kindness that stood out.
One of thousands of children brought to Ireland by charities in the years after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in northern Ukraine, she used her language skills to help interpret for others in the program.
“She was a very compassionate kid,” said Henry Deane, who along with his wife, Marian, hosted her at their home in the central Irish town of Roscrea. “She would hold their hands at the dentist and interpret and, really, comfort them.”
It would be decades before the girl they call Svyeta, now known as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, became the main opposition candidate in last Sunday’s disputed presidential election in Belarus. Ms. Tikhanovskaya, 37, on Sunday fled the country for Lithuania under what her associates said was pressure from the Belarusian authorities.
The country’s president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, claimed a landslide victory in a ballot that was widely denounced as fraudulent.Mr. Lukashenko, who has clung to power amid violent protests denouncing the election, had faced a surprising challenge from Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who became his fiercest rival. In recent days, widespread protests met with violence against demonstrators and mass detentions.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya was an unlikely presidential contender from the outset. Having never been in politics before, she was a stay-at-home mother who took up the candidacy when more established opposition figures, including her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a blogger, were jailed or forced into exile ahead of the vote.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who before the election had given up a teaching career to care for her two children, was thrust into the spotlight as she vowed to continue her husband’s campaign. She found support from voters looking for an alternative to Mr. Lukashenko, as she called for change after years of economic stagnation and repressive rule.
Anna Krasulina, Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s press secretary, said that she had been compelled to take up the candidacy in her husband’s stead.
“It was a very interesting moment, and people immediately began to gather around her,” Ms. Krasulina said.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya has been largely out of contact since arriving in Lithuania this week. Those who know her say they are most worried for the safety of a woman whom they saw rise from difficult beginnings to become a strong leader.
For more than a decade, Ms. Tikhanovskaya spent her summers living with the Deanes, who said she became like one of their own children. Her ability to speak honestly about the trials her country faced signaled her leadership early on, the Deanes said.
“She wouldn’t go along with the crowd,” Ms. Deane said. “She didn’t run down her country, but she didn’t hide anything about it.”
The family hosted a number of other children at their home over the years, but grew particularly close to Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who returned summer after summer and later found casual work in the area to raise money for college.
“She was like our child then,” Ms. Deane said. Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s last visit to Ireland was around 10 years ago but they have stayed in regular contact, with Mr. Deane visiting her in Belarus.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya grew up in Mikashevichi, a town south of Minsk, the capital, where she excelled in school. Her hometown was near the Chernobyl fallout zone and many locals were relocated to the south, although it is unclear if Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s family was among them.
Life in Mikashevichi was difficult, and the Deanes described an impoverished upbringing for Ms. Tikhanovskaya, despite her having a supportive and loving family.
Her time in Ireland allowed her to further her English skills and earn money for school. She later went on to study teaching at Mozyr State Pedagogical University in Belarus, but she eventually left work to devote herself to her two children, a son, now 10, and a daughter, now 5.
The elder child was born nearly deaf, and much of Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s attention went to her son’s care, Ms. Deane said. She moved her family from Minsk to the southeastern city of Gomel so he could receive special care and was eventually able to afford a cochlear implant that vastly improved his hearing.
Ms. Krasulina, the press secretary, said that Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s fight for her child’s health and her stubbornness in ensuring he received the best care possible had remained part of her identity during the campaign.
“She remained herself in the sense that her system of values was completely preserved,”, she said.
The Deanes last spoke with Ms. Tikhanovskaya at the end of April, as her campaign for the election geared up. They feared that the government would portray any overseas calls to her as potential interference, but they continued to communicate with her by text message and email.
“All you can do is just send encouragement and support to her, because we don’t want to put her in any danger,” Mr. Deane said.
After Ms. Tikhanovskaya cast her ballot on Sunday, she disappeared for several hours, before it was reported that she had arrived in Lithuania. On Tuesday, Ms. Tikhanovskaya posted a video explaining why she left Belarus in the early hours of Sunday morning amid antigovernment protests, and in it mentioned her concern for her children’s well-being.
Another video, apparently scripted and recorded under duress before Ms Tikhanovskaya left Belarus, emerged in which she urged her fellow countrymen to end their protests and accept Mr. Lukashenko’s re-election.
Ms. Deane said she struggled to watch the clips, and said she was glad to hear that Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s children — who were sent out of the country before the election for their safety — had been reunited with their mother. The Deanes have been unable to reach her by phone since the election.
Many viewed Ms. Tikhanovskaya as a political lightweight during the campaign, but also saw her as providing a necessary, positive persona for the opposition. She had the ability to work with others and unite feuding factions, while being seen as nonthreatening for Mr. Lukashenko, who never took her seriously and so never had her arrested.
Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer and Nobel laureate, said in an interview with Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe on Wednesday that Ms. Tikhanovskaya “was and remains a symbol of change” who “did what she could.” But, Ms. Alexievich added, it was now time for more experienced figures to take over the opposition effort.
As Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s bid for office gained momentum, Belarusian news outlets compared her to Joan of Arc, an analogy Mr. Deane also drew.
Mrs. Deane said that Mr. Lukashenko vastly underestimated Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s skill as a politician and the strength of the support she drew ahead of the election. At one of her campaign rallies last month, thousands of supporters poured onto the streets of Minsk.
“A stupid little girl, he called her,” Ms. Deane said. “Well, that stupid little girl, she’s had thousands and thousands of people at her rallies, and the support for her has been amazing.”
Andrew Higgins and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.