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By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) - Dismissed by the incumbent as too fragile to run Belarus because of their gender, three women have joined forces to try to unseat President Alexander Lukashenko, a man the United States once called Europe's last dictator.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for over a quarter of a century, has cracked down to try to snuff out rare and sustained protests against him ahead of a presidential election next month, jailing rivals and arresting dissenters.
He faces his biggest challenge in years due to frustration over his hands-off handling of the coronavirus pandemic and grievances over the economy and human rights.
With his male challengers either barred from running or in prison, two of their wives and a female campaign team member of another have united to try to beat him in the Aug. 9 election.
Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, whose husband, Syarhei, spent time in solitary confinement, has become the surprise leading challenger to Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former Soviet collective farm boss.
Tikhanouskaya launched her candidacy after her husband, a popular blogger who campaigned against Lukashenko, was arrested in May on what she says were trumped up charges.
Police say they also found an unexplained $900,000 hidden in their sofa. Tikhanouskaya said she knew nothing about the money.
Lukashenko is expected to extend his grip on power despite the challenge. Western observers do not judge elections in the country to be free and fair.
The EU delegation to non-EU member Belarus said in July that excluding two of Lukashenko's election rivals "undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections", while Europe's election watchdog expressed concern about "key aspects of the electoral process".
But a Lukashenko win may not quell public anger, say analysts, and Tikhanouskaya and her allies are well placed to continue to lead a protest movement.
As a candidate, Tikhanouskaya's first priority is to free all political prisoners and rerun the elections to include all candidates who were barred from standing.
SELFIES IN THE STREET
By Sunday, holding a bouquet of flowers in her left hand and punching the air with her right, she was standing on stage having amassed the largest opposition election rally Belarus has seen in decades.
The people of Belarus "do not want to live in misery anymore, they want to live in a free country where they do not grab people in the street, put them into a police van and then send them to jail for an invented reason", she said.
Tikhanouskaya's challenge is being supported by two other women who represent two different opposition campaigns.
They are Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the campaign team for Viktor Babariko, who was detained and accused of financial misdeeds, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States who was barred from standing after the central election commission disallowed some of the signatures he needed to collect to become a candidate.
An image of the three women posing for the camera – Tikhanouskaya clenching her fist, Kolesnikova making a heart sign, and Tsepkalo making a 'V' for victory sign, has quickly spread.
They attend events together, sparking jokes that they resemble a female rock band and people ask for selfies in the street.
Lukashenko has said he respects women but that "society is not mature enough to vote for a woman". The burden of the presidency would cause her to "collapse, poor thing", he said.
After receiving an anonymous threat that her children would be taken away if she pressed on with her campaign, Tikhanouskaya has sent them abroad to an undisclosed location.
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Nick Macfie)