Stay-at-home-mother Svetlana Tikhanovskaya never had presidential ambitions.
But in a tale worthy of a Hollywood script, in a matter of weeks the 37-year-old has gone from an unknown to the strongest rival to Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term in the August 9 poll.
Tikhanovskaya says she is contesting the election to get her jailed blogger husband out of prison and win much-needed freedom for the ex-Soviet country of 9.5 million people.
“I love my husband very much so I am continuing what he started,” she said.
“I love Belarusians and I want to give them an opportunity to have a choice.”
Tikhanovskaya, an English teacher by training, only made the decision to stand for president in May.
Her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky — a popular 41-year-old YouTube blogger — had been detained and could not submit his own presidential bid in time.
The electoral commission allowed Tikhanovskaya to stand, dropping two stronger opposition candidates.
Despite a lack of political experience, she has quickly emerged as the country’s top opposition figure, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to support her bid.
In speeches, Tikhanovskaya calls herself an “ordinary woman, a mother and wife” and pumps up crowds with calls for change.
“I have become the embodiment of people’s hope, their longing for change,” she told AFP in an interview.
She acknowledged that she is standing despite receiving threats.
Her husband has been accused of plotting mass unrest and collaborating with Russian mercenaries, claims Tikhanovskaya has called “very scary.”
Their five-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son have been taken abroad for their own safety.
She said the separation from her children — including her son who is hearing impaired — was difficult.
Tikhanovskaya stresses that if elected, she would free her husband and other detained opposition figures and hold fresh polls.
– ‘Joan of Arc’ –
Her bid has prompted scepticism from some, while others have compared her to historical heroines.
The Village, a Minsk-based news site, called her “an accidental Joan of Arc,” the 15th century French peasant who helped achieve a pivotal military victory against the English before she was burned at the stake.
“You’re a wife of a Decembrist!” one supporter shouted at a rally, referring to 19th-century aristocrats who followed their husbands into Siberian exile.
Hesitant in early television appearances, Tikhanovskaya has won praise for recent speeches.
Allocated live slots on state television, she listed alleged lies by Lukashenko’s regime, repeating: “They won’t show you this on television”.
“Unexpectedly her first speech on television was strong, without false notes or weak points,” wrote opposition newspaper Nasha Niva.
Belarusian Nobel-prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich has said she will vote for Tikhanovskaya.
Tikhanovskaya’s simple but direct speeches have prompted lengthy cheers at crowded rallies.
“Are you tired of enduring it all? Are you tired of keeping silent?” she asked supporters recently.
“Yes,” the crowd roared.
She has accused Lukashenko of showing blatant disregard for the people during the coronavirus epidemic, which the strongman has dismissed as a hoax.
Her bid for president has come under pressure, with her campaign manager Maria Moroz arrested on Saturday, the second time in a week, Tikhanovskaya’s spokeswoman said.
Tikhanovskaya says that she lacks the “massive charisma” of her husband, who has travelled round Belarus interviewing ordinary people for hard-hitting videos.
– Charlie’s Angels –
Image-wise, she pulled off a transformation with help from two women with more experience and political drive.
These are Veronika Tsepkalo, whose ex-diplomat husband Valery Tsepkalo was barred from standing, and Maria Kolesnikova, campaign chief of ex-banker Viktor Babaryko who was also dropped from the polls and is in jail.
The two women, more sharply dressed and confident speakers, flank her at rallies — with one Belarusian news outlet nicknaming them “Charlie’s Angels.”
The women wear t-shirts with a design featuring their signature gestures: Tikhanovskaya’s punched fist, Kolesnikova’s fingers in a heart shape and Tsepkalo’s victory sign.
Tikhanovskaya has started wearing her hair down and swapped severe dark clothing for pastels.
She has appeared uncomfortable over mounting pressure to explain her political views, acknowledging she was not a politician but a “symbol” of change.
Tikhanovskaya grew up in Mikashevichi, a small town south of Minsk.
With top grades she studied to become a teacher of English and German in the historic city of Mozyr. It was there she met her future husband, who owned a nightclub there.