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In Belarus, these 3 women are challenging a longtime authoritarian

Voters in Belarus will head to the polls this Sunday in the country’s most contested election in decades. Alexander Lukashenko has been called Europe’s last dictator, leading a regime accused of human rights abuses, stifling dissent and running sham elections. But this year, Lukashenko faces an unprecedented challenge in an opposition effort driven by women. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Sunday, voters in Belarus head to the polls in the most contested election there in decades.

    President Alexander Lukashenko has been called Europe's last dictator. He has led Belarus with an iron fist for 26 years, accused of human rights abuses, stifling dissent, and running sham elections. But he now faces an unprecedented challenge.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, the opposition is led by women, who have taken up the mantle of resistance.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Belarus, behind every good man is a better woman in this case, three of them, Veranika Tsapkala, Maryya Kalesnikava, and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, three women who just a few months ago were in the background, now saluted as superheroes, taking on Europe's longest serving leader.

  • Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (through translator):

    The government got rid of strong candidates. But they didn't know, every strong man has a strong woman that supports him.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thirty-seven-year-old Tsikhanouskaya was a former English teacher and homemaker who was married to an opposition politician running for president, when he was arrested in may in broad daylight.

    Now, as a presidential candidate herself, Tsikhanouskaya is trying to turn her husband's moment into a movement, with the help of Kalesnikava, who managed the campaign of another opposition candidate before he was arrested, and Tsapkala, who managed the campaign of her husband, an opposition candidate forced to flee the country with their children.

    Together, they have helped inspire the largest protests in decades and called for a national reckoning.

  • Igor (through translator):

    As long as I can remember, I have been living a lie, this endless lie. I want this lie to finally end.

  • Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (through translator):

    I am tired of being patient. I am tired of being silent. I am tired of being afraid. And you, are you tired of being patient?

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    The three of them together have just mobilized the Belarusian people like we have never seen before.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Matthew Rojansky directs the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. He says the government's targeting the original male opposition candidates helped crystallize longstanding anger.

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    They became political martyrs, being arrested, being pushed out of the country. That was obviously a slap in the face to Belarusian people.

    Time — when you run this kind of tight-fist authoritarian regime, and you leave no room for dissent, no room for people to voice their opposition in a meaningful way, almost any pressure release valve is going to get a lot of pressure coming through it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Alexander Lukashenko took power in 1994, only three years after the country's independence from the Soviet Union. He was elected on a platform of anti-corruption.

    But his critics called him a European dictator, rigging elections, and enabling widespread graft. For months, protesters sick and tired of authoritarian governance and a weak economy wielded slippers to squash a president they called a cockroach.

    Police responded in force. Plainclothes officers detained journalists and activists and made widespread arrests. Last week, authorities also arrested Russian mercenaries, accusing them of terrorist attacks to destabilize Belarus. But, days later, Lukashenko pledged allegiance to Moscow.

  • Alexander Lukashenko (through translator):

    Russia has always been and will always be our closest ally, no matter who is in power in Belarus or Russia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    COVID has further eroded public trust. Belarus has one of Europe's highest per capita infection rates. Lukashenko eventually tested positive, but, at first, he called the virus a psychosis, and said it was treatable with vodka and saunas.

    And at a crowded hockey game, he denied its existence.

  • Alexander Lukashenko (through translator):

    I don't understand. There are no viruses here. Did you see any of them flying around?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Individual Belarusians came to the rescue.

  • Anna Gorchakova:

    We try to survive. We like — we are really interesting. We help each other.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Anna Gorchakova is the director of the Belarusian Children's Hospice. She contracted COVID and told me, conditions in the hospital were so bad, she had to help other patients.

    Civil society groups like #ByCOVID19 prepared meals for poorly supplied health care workers and gathered supplies for overwhelmed hospitals. The shortages cemented anger at an ineffective government.

  • Anna Gorchakova:

    And now is the time to think who I am, what I want. Am I ready to change country? I am ready to change health system?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Early voting is already under way. And despite the opposition's momentum, Lukashenko controls the election apparatus, and is expected to be declared the winner. The extent of protests will determine what comes next.

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    If you have tens of thousands of people pouring into the streets in Minsk and in the major cities across Belarus, that's when I might expect him to turn out the Belarusian paratroops and the Belarusian riot police en masse.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Whether or not it's the end of the line for Lukashenko, for Belarusians, there's hope in the first real alternative in decades.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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