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Who is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya?

Belarus' Joan of Arc

For two weeks now, Belarus has been out in the streets after trying to topple freshly re-elected President Alexander Lukashenko. On the run against him, one woman clearly stood out: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Who is she? We tell  you everything we know. By Marta Portocarrero.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became the main opposition leader in the Belarus election against Alexander Lukashenko, aka “Europe’s last dictator” in power since 1994.

Lukashenko won by a vast majority, but many deemed the election “fraudulent”, which sparked violent protests across the country. More than 6,700 people were arrested, two died and hundreds were injured.

On the third day of protests, as violence escalated, Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania

But who is she?

From difficult beginnings to a strong leader

Tikhanovskaya, 37, grew up in Mikashevichi, a town south of Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

She was an excellent student and had a supportive and loving family, but life was difficult.

Her hometown was near the Chernobyl fallout zone and in the summers she used to go to Ireland – as would hundreds of other Chernoby children – where she stayed with foster families and improved her English.

A leader by chance

Tikhanovskaya was never into politics. Previously a teacher, before the election a stay-home mum dedicated to taking care of her deaf son.

But after her husband, a famous blogger in Belarus, was arrested just days before the election, she decided to step up and try to change things in her country.

Against all odds, her candidacy was accepted and she gained popularity among her husband’s voters and vowed to change years of economic stagnation and repressive rule.

Belarus’ Joan of Arc

Many viewed her as a political lightweight during the campaign, who was able to work with others and unite feuding factions.

Because Lukashenko didn’t see her as a threat, he also didn’t take her seriously, so he never had her arrested.

But despite that not being taken seriously, her fresh look and “gentle strength” attracted thousands of supporters to her campaign rallies, leading Belarusian media outlets to compare her to Joan of Arc.

Her campaign was focused on the release of political prisoners; a new constitutional referendum and holding free elections. She was accompanied by other young women whose husbands had also been arrested.

Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer and Nobel laureate, said in an interview with Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe that Tikhanovskaya “was and remains a symbol of change” who “did what she could.”

Now it’s perhaps time for more experienced figures to step up in Belarus, but Tikhanovskaya has undoubtedly opened a space for other women to feel empowered and fight for a better future.

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