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Marcin Rychły

Presidential campaign Belarusian style. A day with Tatsiana Karatkevich

A Lada, a shop in the countryside and onions – A campaign by the Belarusian way with presidential candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich.

Who is Tatsiana? “I have no idea who she is and where she comes from”, tells me a man with typical Belarusian reluctance. His name is Misha, a young bus driver who promised to take us near the Russian-Belarusian border, more exactly to the Orsha region. We – the 3-member team of Belarus Votes – plan on accompanying Tatsian Karatkevich while she meets her voters on 7 October. She is the first woman in the Belarusian history running for the office of the president, who gathered enough signatures for the election race.

Photo: Marcin Rychły

A campaign following Karatkevich or Karatkevich following a campaign?

Her recognition is the biggest problem for Tatsiana Karatkevich – 38 years old, graduated in psychology at Minsk University. The day before, her meeting with voters in a supermarket in the center of the Belarusian capital gathered only a few persons – mostly students and elderly people looking for some entertainment.

Tatsiana arrives in her campaign headquarter in the center of Minsk dressed in a distinguished but modest skirt and in a suiting coat. She makes some small talks with her manager and a short interview with a German TV-channel. During the journey to eastern Belarus, only a few Belarusian and international journalists accompany Karatkevich. Her whole staff counts less than ten people.

The first destination is Lyady, a small village at the border with Russia. Most of the time, we drive on new and modern highways similar to those one can find in Western Europe. The monotonous landscape is typical for this part of East European Plain and is only disrupted by Russian pop music from the driver’s phone. Yet the less kilometers we have to the destination, the more the surroundings change. Now in the province, infrastructure is not good anymore, the houses look poorer and some of them seem to be abandoned.

After two hours of traveling, Misha has loses the direction. We are in the middle of nowhere. For the next hour, the campaign entourage drives through meadows and fields. Barely any signs of human settlements are visible. What is the sense to arrange a campaign event at the end of the world?

Journalists wait for Karatkevich near a local shop in the suburbs of Dubrovno. There is no permission of the local authorities to organize a meeting in a better place. Just some pensioners and housewives come. No flags, no music, no mood typical for Western elections. There is only one piece of paper with information about the candidate’s meeting which someone put on the door of the shop. And a mysterious Russian car, a Lada, parked 100 meters away from the meeting point with three chunky guys and one women inside, nervously looking at the meeting place. Nothing more nothing less – KGB is watching.

Photo: Marcin Rychły

“Tell me boy, how could a woman run the country?”

“She is from the capital, what does she know? Living here is not a piece of cake but it is also not bad at all. Belarus has its president and we do not need a new one”, answers a nervously looking local citizen about Karatkevich. After few seconds he adds: ”Tell me boy, how could a woman run the country?”

Karatkevich arrives on time. Her staffers spread out a single white-red-white flag, which is not officially banned from public usage. But the flag is treated by the authorities as an unregistered symbol what could lead to an arrest and a confiscation of the flag. In the meanwhile, the dowdy head of Karatkevich’s regional structure redistributes leaflets in his overstretched sweater is.

The candidate is not well-prepared, with no special speech made by herself or even her staff. How can a person like she compete to be a president of any country? But one has to emphasize that she strongly tries to answer every question the audience asks her. She speaks quite good, she knows both Russian and Belarusian well, which is very uncommon among Belarusian authorities. But Karatkevich is not the best speaker and – what is more important – it seems she herself does not believe what she talks about. The presidency is completely abstractive for her in the nearest future.

Some of housewives diffidently ask her about her knowledge of Belarusian. Karatkevich assures of her language competence: “I will use Belarusian language when I became a president of Belarus”.

Photo: Marcin Rychły

People are not inspired. A reaction of one of elderly women in headscarves shows it well: “For me, Lukashenko guarantees the safety of our economy and good social benefits. We do not need a new president, we do not need any other president”.

Next stop: Orsha. The city with its 115 000 inhabitants is situated near the place where in the sixteenth century allied Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian troops defeated a Muscovite army. The battle was also the first time use of the white-red-white flag, the symbol of free and independent Belarus. This flag is flying today at Karatkevich’s meeting point. There are two meetings in Orsha: one at the Jesuits monastery and one in a school hall. The schedule and audience’s reactions are the same. Not many people are interesting in the presidential candidate. Again, Karatkevich ‘s campaign staff redistribute leaflets among people walking around and another green Lada with chunky guys observing the situation with binoculars stays close.

Photo: Marcin Rychły

In the school hall, several dozen people are sitting and waiting for Karatkevich’s speech. She starts talking about her parents, her husband – a bricklayer – and their young son. In the meantime, she presents herself as a typical Belarusian women with common problems. She answers all questions that, compared to previous meetings, address more ambitious and serious issues.

People ask about Belarus’ neighbors, international affairs and the structure of army. Close to the end Karatkevich comments to Lukashenko’s rule: “Batka actually has built a prison for himself. His palace is a golden cage, that he will be not able to escape”. After these words, people applause for a long time – the first and last positive reaction for her during that day of campaigning.

Photo: Marcin Rychły

Election domesticity: onions, cognac and cucumbers

After her speech she invites guests to an old Belarusian cottage, which is a little bit neglected and damaged by the passing time. This small and not very posh building was adapted as a headquarter of the local structure of her movement. The mood inside – with the host pouring Georgian cognac, onions under a computer desk and boxes with cucumbers between beds – is cozy and friendly, though the whole scenery looks not quite professional. Or with other words: these people seem to be not prepared to run the country, not yet.

Photo: Marcin Rychły

The main question is how Karatkevich’s future will be after the elections. After following her campaign at different locations in the countryside, it seems obvious that some Belarusians are not interested in any change. They just want to live their humble but somehow comfortable life. Like Misha, the bus driver.


Marcin Rychły is a contributor at Eastbook.eu

See also: Who dares to vote for Lukashenko?



The background image is a derivative of "Belarus" by Marc Veraart, used under CC BY.