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Belarus' Longtime President Faces Unexpected Competition In Upcoming Election


Belarus is a former Soviet republic. It's sandwiched between Russia and Poland. And its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been in power since 1994. But in this Sunday's presidential election, he's facing unexpected competition from a 37-year-old woman who says she was never interested in politics. Here's more from NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Something incredible is happening in Belarus.


KIM: Out of the blue, a political novice is taking the country by storm.


SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).


KIM: In the capital, Minsk, last week, tens of thousands of people showed up to see presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.


TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: Tikhanovskaya says if she beats President Alexander Lukashenko, she'll call new, free and fair elections within half a year with the participation of all opposition candidates.


KIM: She decided to run for president after her husband, Sergei, a popular blogger, was denied registration as a candidate and jailed. Another candidate is in pretrial detention and a third has fled Belarus for his own safety. Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst in Minsk, says Lukashenko may be regretting he ever allowed Tikhanovskaya to run.

ARTYOM SHRAIBMAN: He underestimated her capacities to grow as a politician and to rally the support of all the oppositional candidates that were in the race before that.

KIM: Shraibman says that came on top of an even bigger miscalculation.

SHRAIBMAN: I would say that the handling - or, rather, mishandling of coronavirus pandemic was a more serious mistake and the larger contributing factor to what we see these days in Belarus.

KIM: Lukashenko angered many Belarusians by brushing off the pandemic as a psychosis that could be prevented with daily vodka shots and visits to the sauna. Officials say Belarus has had more than 68,000 COVID-19 cases but strangely fewer than 600 deaths. Tikhanovskaya says that shows Lukashenko's bureaucrats put rosy statistics above the health of the people. Lukashenko, not accustomed to dissent, is having none of it.


KIM: With great fanfare, he addressed the nation this week.


PRESIDENT ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: For an hour and a half, government officials sat stone-faced in a packed hall neither observing social distancing nor wearing masks. Lukashenko took credit for defeating the coronavirus, dismissed Tikhanovskaya as an unhappy girl and issued a stark warning before Sunday's election.


LUKASHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "So far, this isn't a war. They're not shooting in the streets yet," Lukashenko said. "But billions are being spent and the latest technologies deployed against Belarus." Lukashenko has tried to link Tikhanovskaya to these shadowy, external enemies. But that hasn't stopped her campaign from gathering strength. Still, Artyom Shraibman says Lukashenko's reelection is almost guaranteed thanks to massive vote rigging and the lack of independent observers.

SHRAIBMAN: If I were to bet in some casino-like situation, I would probably bet on the regime. But this is not completely clear.

KIM: The opposition, for its part, is already planning protests. Lukashenko says he's ready for them.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "KEYFRAMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.