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Belarus: Why do dictators need women?

Belarus, often called “the last dictatorship of Europe,” is a truly remarkable country in political terms. There are few other places where elections are rigged in such an open way and where, for over 12 years, opposition politicians have not set foot in the parliament. However, the latest parliamentary election in Belarus has brought some surprising results. Two opposition politicians were elected, among the other 108, to the Belarusian House of Representatives. Even more surprising is the gender of the selected politicians, as they are both women.

October 18, 2016 - Ales Herasimenka - Articles and Commentary

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Just like all the other elections in Belarus, the vote on September 11th was a sham carried out primarily for the purpose of political legitimisation of the regime. Nobody knows the real results of the election, but it is clear even for the elected (or rather selected) parliamentarians that the vote was a fraud. Therefore, most observers agree that the two opposition candidates were selected personally by president Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

During his 22 years in power, Lukashenka managed to drive the previously strong political opposition to the peripheries of political life. In the system he has created, opposition politicians are doomed to act as dissidents, unable to unite. For the past five years, there have not been any signs of a serious rival from the opposition emerging nor any major political protests, which used to be part of Belarus’s political culture. It seems that Lukashenka has consolidated his autocratic rule on an unprecedented scale. He has secured continuous control over Belarus’s political life and, at the same time, ensured that the country ranks consistently poorly in various international rankings of political freedoms.

Discussing the motives and the implications of the unexpected election of opposition politicians, the majority of commentators and observers have focused on Belarus’s foreign relations and economy. Indeed, the war in Ukraine and the military threat from Russia, combined with the economic troubles, have motivated the regime to look for support outside of Russia. Therefore, it could be argued that the admission of two opposition MPs might be a step towards democratisation. This step might increase the much needed bargaining power of Lukashenka in his dealings with the EU and the US.

Looking at the external implications of Lukashenka’s move, few commentators have addressed how the opposition figures may change Belarusian reality and society. Moreover, it seems that almost nobody has noticed that the first representatives of the opposition in the Belarusian parliament in the last 12 years are women.

Lukashenka and women

Lukashenka does not have any pro-feminist inclinations, quite the opposite. According to Natalia Koulinka, a Belarusian researcher, he constantly invokes patriarchal notions repeating, for instance, that women are naturally kind, weak and in need of protection. In return, women repay him with their support, much higher than he enjoys among men. According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies’ data, 41 per cent of women and only 28.9 per cent of men voted for Lukashenka in the 2015 presidential election. The study concludes that “Lukashenko’s election is mainly a decision of female part of Belarusian society” [sic!].

At the same time, social norms relating to gender in Belarusian politics and public life follow the conservative social agenda of the late Soviet tradition. These norms marginalise women in politics. Since independence, Belarus has not seen women in top government posts or leadership positions within the opposition movement. The sole recent exception includes Tatsiana Karatkevich who became the only real alternative to Lukashenka in the 2015 presidential race. However, her candidature divided the opposition and did not contribute to any lasting change in the country.

The nature of Belarusian authoritarianism and gender issues are definitely connected. This connection is apparent in the common nickname of President Lukashenka: “Batka” or “Father,” which he reportedly enjoys. It tells a lot about the nature of his patriarchal views, which most likely also define his attitude towards women in politics. For example, he might not be afraid of women in the parliament since he believes in their compliance and obedience to serve his political goals.

The newly elected opposition MPs do not have political backgrounds. Hanna Kanapatskaya, who is a member of the United Civic Party, made career as a businesswoman and a lawyer. The other MP, Alena Anisim, is a cultural activist with an academic background and the deputy head of the Belarusian Language Society. They both have little experience of politics, in contrast to their superiors – the leaders of the Civic Party and the Language Society.

Lukashenka’s objective in the appointment of two female MPs may have been be twofold. On the one hand, he may be attempting to build a comfortable and uncompetitive political ground since his ultimate goal is to ensure his power is never seriously threatened. In other words, there can be only one “Batka” in the country and as many “mothers” as he wishes. The selection of unexperienced female politicians to represent the political opposition might help him to achieve this goal.

On the other hand, he may be trying to appeal to his traditional support base – women. There are no fair elections in the country, but public opinion matters everywhere. While the older generation of women have been instrumental in the falsification of election results at the local level, the rosy days of Lukashenka’s early rule are long gone and he enjoys much less support among younger females than among those who lived most of their lives in Soviet Belarus. He therefore needs to enhance his support base. Kanapatskaya is a young and progressive urban woman, while Anisim from the older generation and she has a background in culture. Thus, neither of them is a typical Soviet women of the kind that helped Lukashenka to rig elections. In contrast, they are highly educated and concerned with the state of the economy, just like many other women around the country. And those women will probably play a bigger role in the society in the years to come.

Will women save the Father?

How could these female activists, and all democratically-minded people, utilise the pretty favourable results of the latest election? Let us try to look at the possible consequences of the appointment of two opposition figures in the parliament using the examples of other countries with a similar situation.

In general, politicians and activists’ work can pay off when a political opening eventually occurs. For instance, in Burkina Faso, following 27 years of authoritarian rule, the recent mass protests led to the resignation of the president. Importantly, it was female political activists who played key roles in the initial stages of the protests. But a political opening does not always occur. Are there any other examples of democratic transition for Belarus?

First, scholars of authoritarian parliaments, the architecture and functions of which differ from democratic ones, note that authoritarian regimes do need some parliamentary opposition. The opposition in the parliament delivers alternative opinions, which ultimately makes the regime more stable. And the lack of credible information is especially dangerous in any time of crisis.

Thus, the first variant of political developments in Belarus suggests the further institutionalisation of the current regime through its evolution towards a softer version of a competitive autocracy with some opposition in the parliament and little physical repression of the regime’s opponents. However, the country remains very much controlled by the regime in its current fragile economic and security situation, which it found itself after the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The second option involves more uncertainty. As the history of Belarus, as well other authoritarian states. suggests a sudden appearance of the opposition in the parliament may trigger long-term processes leading to democratisation. For instance, the election in 1990 of 37 MPs – out of 345, who later formed the first opposition, eventually led to a short-lived democratisation and independence of the country. This sort of the institutionalised democratisation is probably a more preferable option than popular revolutions that usually do not bring any change of governance in authoritarian states. However, to trigger any significant changes the newly elected opposition should act fast. Otherwise, Kanapatskaya and Anisim will serve as a façade, created by the dictator to distract domestic and international groups angling to find a democratic opening.

So far, the Belarusian parliament has been a clientelist network which has helped the regime to survive and maintain control of society. However, it also has a history of fulfilling democratic demands, just like in the first half of 1990s when, following perestroika, the Belarusian parliament adopted the declaration of independence and other important documents that defined the future of the country. In any case, the political life of Belarus continues to become more and more interesting to follow. 

Ales Herasimenka is a PhD researcher at the Communication and Media Research Institute of the University of Westminster.  For the past ten years he has been working as a journalist for various Belarusian independent media outlets.  

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