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Lukashenka’s disdain for women was his big mistake

Women have played a central role since the very beginning of the protests in Belarus.

August 20, 2020 - Joanna Hosa - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Protests in Minsk on August 14th 2020. Photo: Melirius (cc) wikimedia.org

Over the last week, Belarus has seen widespread protests, which have been met with unprecedented police brutality and terror. It is now increasingly clear that people’s anger and determination are stronger than their fear of the regime. The authorities seem to have realised that beating up peaceful protesters was a mistake. For example, on August 13th the regime took a step back and started releasing many citizens who had been arrested and often subject to torture. Even bigger protests followed, with 200,000 protesters participating over the weekend.

The faltering regime is now making many mistakes. However, perhaps the biggest mistake Alyaksandr Lukashenka made was openly admitting his disdain for women. Many observers have noted the key role that women have played during the protests. Overall, they have been able to influence events because their power was shockingly underestimated by the regime.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya emerged as the opposition’s main presidential candidate after three other contenders, all male, were forcefully eliminated from the race. Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka were jailed on trumped-up charges, while Valery Tsepkalo fled the country just in time to avoid arrest. Following this state interference, it appears that only Lukashenka’s deeply held misogyny allowed Sviatlana, who is married to
Siarhei Tsikhanouski, to stay in the race. Lukashenka was quick to belittle the threat she posed:

Our society is not prepared to vote for a woman. Because in our country, according to the Constitution, the president has strong power (…) the president will be a man, I am absolutely convinced of this,said Lukashenka in May. By stating this in public, he hinted at three damaging stereotypes: the supposed ‘weakness’ of women, Belarusian women’s ‘natural’ position outside politics, and the population’s inability to change the constitutional system.

In response, Tsikhanouskaya aimed to set the record straight. First, she formed a team with Maria Kalesnikava, the head of Babaryka’s electoral campaign, and Veranika Tsapkala, the wife of Valery Tsapkala. Reportedly, it only took the three 15 minutes to reach an agreement regarding cooperation. Despite representing different opposition forces, they were united by their goal to win the presidential election. Following this, they would then organise a new, free, and fair vote for the country within six months.

The rise of Tsikhanouskaya is in many ways astonishing, most notably due to her political inexperience – she had worked as an interpreter and recently focused on raising her two children. However, her humble and honest approach won the hearts of the people. As a presidential candidate, she inspired millions of Belarusians to fight for change. Despite being threatened and forced out of the country, she now stands ready to become the leader the country needs in order to organise free and fair elections.

Perhaps sensing his precarious position, Lukashenka attempted to denigrate the alliance just five days ahead of the election: “they found three unfortunate girls. They don’t even understand what they read.” His audience did not blink an eye, but other Belarusians had made up their mind. Thousands joined in peaceful protests to demand fair elections. For instance, on July 30th an unprecedented crowd of 63,000 people gathered in the centre of Minsk to support Tsikhanouskaya.

We do not know how many people actually voted for Tsikhanouskaya on August 9th. Independent estimates believe that she received between 70 to 90 per cent of the vote. Given the extraordinary queues at polling stations and the results reported abroad, this outcome does appear to be possible. Certainly, these estimates are more credible that Lukashenka’s official tally, which found that he had once again won by a landslide with 80.1 per cent of the vote.

On August 11th, we learned that Tsikhanouskaya had left Belarus for Lithuania. The exact circumstances surrounding this event are still unclear. However, we do know that following the official election results, she lodged a complaint at the Central Election Commission. She then disappeared, only to remerge in Lithuania the following day. In a video published by
Tsikhanouskaya, it is clear that she was being threatened. Little is also known about the nature of these threats. They may have involved the safety of her still-imprisoned husband, her children (who had been evacuated from Belarus beforehand), or her campaign colleagues. Perhaps it was all of the above, and more.

In the emotional video, Tsikhanouskaya states that she knows some people will be disappointed, and that perhaps some will even hate her, for her choice. But when she said, “I’ve probably remained that weak woman that I was to begin with,” these words stand in sharp contrast to her remarkable achievements so far.

The regime hoped to discredit her. Lukashenka quickly spread the narrative that Tsikhanouskaya had ‘fled’ the country. But among a growing number of protests and strikes in factories, more and more people started openly showing their support for Tsikhanouskaya. Another video, where
Tsikhanouskaya was clearly forced to read a statement urging people to stay at home, only fuelled popular anger against the regime. A week later, it is difficult to ignore the possibility that Tsikhanouskaya may be back to lead the nation towards free and fair elections.

The ongoing protests in Belarus have been hailed as ‘a female revolution’. Of course, anti-government feeling is not exclusively female and now encompasses all of society. However, in recent months women have played a key role in Belarusian politics. Lukashenka’s disdain for women has backfired spectacularly. Across the country, women have now seized the opportunity to fight for change in a truly extraordinary way.

Joanna Hosa is the deputy director of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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