Half-a-year ago Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron Soviet-style fist for a quarter of century, looked to be unassailable. But the former collective farm manager, whose aides and supporters like to dub him “father,” is now being widely labeled a “cockroach” — and his opponents are vowing to “squash the pest” come August when he faces a presidential election.
In the past, Lukashenko has managed elections in much the same way as Russian leader Vladimir Putin – disqualify serious opponents from running, fiddle the tallies and silence independent media, according to international election monitors. During the last poll in 2015, many Belarusians observed the upheaval in neighboring Ukraine and took fright, deciding they preferred the leaden, if impoverishing, stability of Lukashenko over unpredictable and possibly ruinous change, say analysts.
But this time, Lukashenko is threatened not by a so-called “color revolution” but with a “slipper uprising,” thanks to popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was arrested at a rally last month after an alleged assault on a police officer.
Tikhanovsky was behind the labeling of Lukashenko as a “cockroach,” saying he resembled the insect in a popular childrens poem called “The Mighty Cockroach.” He had taken to driving around Belarus campaigning with a giant slipper tied to the roof of his car — a signal of his intention to flatten Lukashenko.
Charged with public disorder and accused of being a foreign agent after the security services claimed to have unearthed $900,000 in cash during a subsequent search of his home, Tikhanovsky is blocked from running. His 38-year-old wife, Svetlana, has stepped up as a substitute to challenge Lukashenko.
And she has become, on paper, the incumbent Lukashenkos biggest threat, following the detention on Friday of another challenger, Viktor Babaryko, a 56-year-old former banker, who was arrested for alleged financial crimes, along with his campaign manager, his son. “Babaryko is detained because he was the organizer and leader of illegal activities,” Ivan Tertel, head of the state control committee, told AFP news agency.
Tertel also accused Babaryko of conspiring with Russian “puppeteers.”
The arrests of Tikhanovsky, Babaryko and other Lukashenko critics— which have triggered street protests in the streets of Minsk, the Belarus capital, and earned a rebuke from the European Union — puts Svetlana Tikhanovskaya even more in the spotlight.
Even before Babarykos detention, 16% of Belarusians backed her candidacy, according to an unofficial poll run by the news site Tut.by. Police have told the website not to publish any more polls. And the signs are that she is unnerving the idiosyncratic authoritarian leader unaccustomed to challenge. Midweek she told reporters an anonymous caller told her to pull out of the election, warning the Tikhanovskys ten-year-old son and four-year-old daughter could be taken away from them if she refused.
She says she had considered backing down, but has decided to continue, determined to be a champion for Belarusians, many of whom “dont know that in Europe you can say what you think without fear.” She added, “Ive never wanted to be a politician, let alone the president. This is just how things have turned out.”
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has become an unlikely revolutionary figurehead. She describes herself as just a stay-at-home mother and wife. One of the couples children has special needs. But the enthusiasm for change is clear. Towns across the landlocked country of nine million have seen protests and crowds appear to support her candidacy and the campaigns of other opposition candidates. She acknowledges “people at these rallies are supporting Sergei, not me.”
Her husband, who has been compared to Alexei Navalny, the blogger turned opposition leader in neighboring Russia, says he is playing “the main role in my wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s election campaign; her role will be only a nominal one.” He has in the campaign team other popular bloggers.
Despite last weeks arrests people in Minsk are lining up again to sign the nomination papers of candidates opposing Lukashenko, according to Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova. She tweeted Sunday: “3 leading #Lukashenkos rivals collected more than 730,000 signatures in less than a month. If you count 3 other alternative candidates, it is more than a million. This campaign has already shown that the level of activism and political engagement is incredibly high.”
Candidates have to gather at least 100,000 signatures to be qualified to stand.
The opposition to Lukashenko is being fueled by an increasingly parlous economic situation, a coronavirus crisis, which the president downplayed from the start and cheerily told Belarusians to take saunas and drink vodka to avoid falling ill, and just a weariness with his rule and stagnation, analysts say. Younger Belarusians seem impervious to Lukashenkos warnings of chaos, if hes not reelected to his sixth term. And they are immune seemingly to the Soviet-like stability their elders favor.
Lukashenko is not being helped in his political struggle by neighboring Russia. His relationship with Vladimir Putin has long been a fitful one with the two falling out frequently and then circling back for convenience sake. A senior Russian diplomat based in Minsk described to VOA once the “shouting match” he overheard during a phone conversation between the pair.
Analysts say Putins major objective towards Belarus is to ensure — much as his goal is with Ukraine — that it doesnt end up as a pro-Western enclave on Russias borders, say analysts. The Belarusian leader has long played the West against Russia and vice versa. He observed a neutral stance over Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and hosted peace talks in Minsk to try to find a solution to the war in eastern Ukraine.
But he has relied on Russia financially for help — and that has been less forthcoming with subsidies and oil supplies in recent months, punishment, analysts and diplomats say, for Lukashenkos resistance to Putins efforts to draw Minsk deeper into the Russian orbit.
Few analysts predict that anyone other than Lukashenko will be allowed to win the Aug. 9 poll — and they warn that Belarus could quickly be plunged into a Maidan-like uprising that saw the 2014 ouster of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine.
Protests are spreading across Belarus as opposition to Lukashenko grows, local media and human rights organizations report. On Friday, more than 10 cities across the former Soviet republic saw protests with dozens of activists arrested by the security forces. The independent human rights group Viasna says least 120 people were detained.
Lukashenko appears to be preparing for the likelihood of a violent reaction to his seemingly inevitable electoral win, claiming on Friday that by arresting Babaryko and dozens of political activists he had foiled a Ukraine-style revolutionary plot hatched by foreign conspirators from “both the West and from the East,” who are intent on fomenting unrest in Belarus.
Former aide Alexander Feduta, now a political analyst, has warned that Lukashenko is ready to use force to stay in power. The arrests are an indication of that, he says.
Aliku Ogorchukwu: Wife of Nigerian killed in Italy demands justice
The wife of a Nigerian street trader who was killed in Italy has told the BBC she is seeking justice following his “painful death”.
Aliku Ogorchukwu, 39, was reportedly selling handkerchiefs in the seaside town of Civitanova Marche on Friday when he was chased and beaten to death.
A 32-year-old Italian has been arrested on suspicion of murder and robbery.
A video circulating online shows a man on top of Ogorchukwu, punching him with his bare hands.
None of those who witnessed the broad daylight attack appeared to intervene.
“This is a form of wickedness I don’t know,” Ogorchukwu’s wife, Charity Oriachi, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa.
Ms Oriachi said she had received help in coming to terms with her husband’s death but was tired of “talk”. Now, she was only interested in justice, she insisted.
Her family had lived in Italy for a long time, she said, stressing that her husband had never sought any trouble.
The killing has sparked outrage in the local community, including Nigerians, who took to the streets over the weekend and are planning another demonstration soon.
The Nigerian government has asked Italian authorities to quickly “bring the perpetrator of the heinous act” to justice.
Suspect not released
The suspect – a white man named as Filippo Claudio Giuseppe Ferlazzo – has been ordered to remain in jail as the investigation continues.
His defence lawyer told the media the suspect had said he was sorry and that there was “no racial element” involved.
A police investigator said Ogorchukwu was attacked after the trader’s “insistent” requests to the suspect and his partner for spare change.
The partner, identified as Elena D, told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Ogorchukwu had touched her arm, but that did not bother her.
Ms Oriachi now wants to see the suspect “face to face”, to understand why he killed her husband, the family’s lawyer told the Associated Press.
Ukrainian widow confronts Russian soldier accused of killing her husband
In the very first days of this invasion a 62-year-old unarmed civilian was shot dead on a village street outside his Ukrainian home. His name was Oleksandr Shelipov.
Three months later and the captured Russian soldier accused of killing him is in Kyiv being tried for a war crime.
Standing up in court to confront the 21-year-old defendant on Thursday was Kateryna Shelipova, the widow of the man killed.
Did he repent his crime, she asked?
The Russian tank commander, Vadim Shishimarin, replied that he admitted his guilt and asked for her forgiveness. “But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me,” he added.
Kateryna Shelipova hadn’t finished. “Tell me please, why did you [Russians] come here? To protect us?” she asked, citing Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.
“Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?”
The soldier had no answer to that.
This landmark trial marks the first time a Russian serviceman has been put on the stand for war crimes since the invasion of Ukraine was launched in February.
And perhaps such raw encounters are what such trials are about, at least in part. Forcing a soldier – who ignored all the rules of war – to face up to exactly what he has done and the suffering he has caused.
Sgt Shishimarin has pleaded guilty and Ukrainian prosecutors are asking for him to be sentenced to life imprisonment.
On Wednesday, Ms Shelipova told me she actually felt sorry for the soldier, but she could not forgive him for this crime.
She heard the shots that killed her husband, then saw Sgt Shishimarin through her gate – holding his weapon.
Five minutes later she says she saw her husband’s body: “He was dead with a shot in his head. I started screaming very loudly.”
“The loss of my husband is everything for me,” Ms Shelipova said, adding: “He was my protector.”
‘It killed him’
Recalling the events of 28 February, Vadim Shishimarin said he and a small group of other Russian soldiers had become separated from their unit and hijacked a car in order to return to it.
“As we were driving, we saw a man. He was talking on the phone,” the defendant said.
He claimed that he hadn’t wanted to fire the fatal shots, that he was following orders – threatened by another soldier if he refused to do as he was told.
“He said I would be putting us in danger if I didn’t. I shot him at short range. It killed him,” the 21-year-old tank commander told the court.
Interestingly, his defence lawyer – appointed by the state – told me that no Russian official has been in touch with him, including from its defence ministry.
There is no Russian embassy in Kyiv these days, so no contact from there either.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman yesterday told the BBC that the Kremlin has “no information” about this case.
All in all, it feels rather like the young soldier has been abandoned to his fate by the commanders who sent him to war and continue to deny that their forces commit crimes here.
We also heard from a second Russian soldier who witnessed the killing in February and later surrendered to Ukrainian forces.
Ivan Maltysev, another slight and young-looking 21-year-old, told the court how the Russian soldiers spotted Oleksandr Shelipov while they were driving the stolen car.
Mr Maltysev claimed that Vadim Shishimarin was then ordered to shoot the victim because he was on the phone.
“Vadim didn’t do it. So the soldier, whose name I don’t know, turned round in the car and shouted that Vadim had to carry out the order, or we would be informed on.
“At this point, we were almost alongside the civilian and, under pressure, Vadim fired. He fired three or four rounds.”
Ukraine has so far identified more than 11,000 possible war crimes committed by Russia.
Moscow has denied its troops have targeted civilians, but investigators have been collecting evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
This trial is Ukraine’s chance to prove, beyond doubt, that a Russian soldier killed a civilian with no regard for the rules of war.
Its prosecutors know they are in the spotlight, proceeding so quickly, and in the middle of a war.
That is why they are keen to be as transparent and thorough as possible – so that this is not seen as a show trial, but part of a vital quest for justice.
Stop matching lone female Ukraine refugees with single men, UK told
The UN refugee agency has called on the UK government to intervene to stop single British men from being matched up with lone Ukrainian women seeking refuge from war because of fears of sexual exploitation.
Following claims that predatory men are using the Homes for Ukraine scheme to target the vulnerable, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) told the Guardian “a more appropriate matching process” could be put in place to ensure women and women with children are matched with families or couples.
The suggestion from the global refugee agency follows reports that Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and sometimes accompanied by children, are at risk in the UK of sexual exploitation.
Under the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, British hosts must link up with Ukrainian refugees themselves, leaving tens of thousands of people to resort to unregulated social media groups to connect.
A government-backed matching service run by the charity Reset offers to match UK hosts with refugees but has been operating for just over a week. Those who want to move to the UK must have a sponsor before applying for a visa.
In a statement, the UNHCR said there was a need for adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation, as well as adequate support for sponsors. “[The] UNHCR believes that a more appropriate matching process could be put in place by ensuring that women and women with children are matched with families or couples, rather than with single men.
“Matching done without the appropriate oversight may lead to increasing the risks women may face, in addition to the trauma of displacement, family separation and violence already experienced,” a spokesperson said.
Leading refugee charities raised their concerns about the Homes for Ukraine scheme in a letter to Michael Gove, the minister in charge of the scheme. Louise Calvey, the head of safeguarding at the charity Refugee Action, told the Observer it was at risk of being a “Tinder for sex traffickers”.
One 32-year-old woman from Bakhmut, Ukraine, who has been searching for an appropriate person to match in the UK, wrote that she had received suggestive messages from men on Facebook’s Messenger app. “I was approached by one older guy from London who said that I would have to share a bedroom with him, and was asked if I was OK with that,” she said in an email seen by the Guardian.
The Sunday Times reported this week that a journalist posing as a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman from Kyiv found that within minutes of posting a message on the largest Facebook group for UK hosts she was inundated with inappropriate messages.
Some men lied about having several bedrooms in their one-bed homes while another proposed sharing a bed, writing: “I have a large bed. We could sleep together.” Another sent a voice note that said: “I am ready to help you and maybe you can help me also.”
In its statement, the UNHCR also raised concerns about the repercussions should the original UK host prove a potential threat to the safety of the refugee, and the six-month minimum duration on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
“UNHCR believes that appropriate training and information are needed to ensure that hosts make an informed decision when applying to become sponsors. Housing a stranger in an extra bedroom for an extended period is not, for some people, sustainable,” the spokesperson said.
There is growing public anger over the length of time that Ukrainians are being forced to wait before being given visas from the Home Office amid the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, apologised on Friday for the time it had taken for Ukrainian refugees to arrive in the UK under two visa schemes, after figures showed only 12,000 had so far reached Britain.
Reports on Tuesday claimed Gove had been accused of bullying Home Office officials by Patel’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft.
Asked to respond to the UNHCR’s request for an intervention on sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women, a government spokesperson said: “Attempts to exploit vulnerable people are truly despicable – this is why we have designed our Homes for Ukraine scheme to have specific safeguards in place, including robust security and background checks on all sponsors, both by the Home Office and local authorities.
“Councils must make at least one in-person visit to a sponsors property and following guests arrival, they have a duty to ensure the guest is safe and well.
“We have also partnered with the charity Reset Communities and Refugees to fund and provide a matching service for sponsors and refugees to ensure that matches made are suitable, safe and successful. This service will vet eligibility, assess needs, and provide training for sponsors to ensure they
ensure they can support the people they host.”
Asked to confirm or deny whether there had been a complaint that Gove had bullied staff, the spokesperson added: “Humanitarian schemes set up in record time by the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities working closely together are helping thousands of Ukrainians find safety in the UK.”