The surprise opposition candidate mounting the most serious challenge in years to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Friday that her country was waking up, but warned that the strongman planned to rig the vote.
Political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has emerged as the rising star of the opposition in her ex-Soviet nation, ruled by Lukashenko since 1994 and sometimes described as Europe's last dictatorship.
Speaking to AFP in central Minsk after a gruelling campaign that has seen her attract big crowds of supporters, Tikhanovskaya said it seemed something in her country had changed ahead of Sunday's election.
"People are waking up, rediscovering their self-respect," the 37-year-old said, wearing the white bracelet that has become the symbol of Belarus's opposition.
Tikhanovskaya decided to run after her 41-year-old blogger husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, ended up in jail and could not submit his own presidential bid in time.
She said she expected Lukashenko to rig the election but warned that he needed to quit power peacefully if he lost.
"We won't be able to prevent falsifications. We've seen over the past couple of days how brazenly this election is being falsified. There is no hope that they will count honestly. We have to be realistic."
Early voting began in the country of 9.5 million people on Tuesday, with official turnout over the past three days already at more than 22 percent.
- 'We don't want blood' -
Tikhanovskaya said the opposition would conduct an alternative count and would know if the election had been rigged, but said she would not urge her supporters to take to the streets.
"At this stage each one has to decide for himself," she said, warning that Lukashenko would only encourage protests by quashing dissent.
"They are doing everything for the peaceful protests to become bloody ones. And I don't want this."
Switching from Russian to English, a language in which she trained as a teacher, Tikhanovskaya said: "People are tired. Twenty-six years is enough."
She said that if an alternative candidate ends up winning the vote, the 65-year-old strongman should "step away peacefully" and let the country "move forward with a new leader".
"It's very simple. We don't want blood," she said.
Tikhanovskaya only made the decision to stand for president in May and was allowed to after the electoral commission dropped two stronger opposition candidates.
Despite a lack of political experience, she has quickly emerged as the country's top opposition figure, with tens of thousands rallying to support her bid.
Tikhanovskaya said she is contesting the election to get her jailed husband out of prison and win much-needed freedom for her country.
Their five-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son have been taken abroad for their own safety.
When she spoke of her husband and children, tears welled up in her eyes.
She said the campaign has been tough on her, adding that the separation with her children -- including her son who is hearing impaired -- was difficult.
"I am afraid, every day I am afraid," she said.
- 'Embodiment of hope' -
Her husband was also "under huge pressure" in prison but she was confident that he would pull through.
"He believes in Belarusians, he believes in me," she said.
She accused Lukashenko of showing blatant disregard for the people during the coronavirus epidemic, which the strongman has dismissed as a hoax.
While people were dying and doctors lacked protective gear, Lukashenko encouraged Belarusians to drink vodka and drive tractors as a way to overcome the coronavirus, she noted.
"That really really affected me," Tikhanovskaya said. "He says he loves his people and his country but he says these things."
Tikhanovskaya challenged Lukashenko to a face-to-face debate but he refused, accusing her of being backed by Russian interests.
She rubbished the claim. "If they had any proof, I am sure they would have long produced it."
Tikhanovskaya said she wanted to help build a new Belarus but that she saw herself not as a politician, but as a symbol.
"I have become the embodiment of people's hope, their longing for change."