Friday

25th Sep 2020

Feature

How a women's revolution is testing Belarus dictator

  • 'Damsels in distress' brought out chivalry in Belarusian men (Photo: Daria Buryakina for tut.by)

The largest mass protests in Belarus' history, unfolding right now, could be called a women's revolution.

Events, which have jeopardised dictator-president Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year rule, are being driven by three women, including presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

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Female demonstrators played a crucial role in street protests.

And women with flowers helped pause police brutality.

The protests were triggered by a rigged election on 9 August, in which Lukashenko declared himself the landslide winner.

There is evidence his victory was faked.

And Tikhanovskaya's success - there are signs she won the vote - came as a surprise for the sexist leader.

His election commission, which had shut down all his other opponents, only registered her because Lukashenko did not think a woman posed a threat.

But against all odds, the 37-year old Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, galvanised public mutiny.

"She was transformed from an ordinary woman into the symbol of the protest movement," Belarusian journalist Anna Baraban told EUobserver.

Women leaders such as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova (l) became symbols (Photo: Homoatrox)

Domestic violence

Tikhanovskaya's husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was not even allowed to collect election-registration signatures before Lukashenko threw him in prison.

Two other activists, Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, collected 435,119 and 212,000 signatures of support, respectively - record numbers for opposition members.

Candidates need to get just 100,000 signatures to register in a presidential vote in Belarus.

But instead of letting them run, Belarusian authorities also filed criminal cases against them, jailing Babariko and forcing Tsepkalo to flee abroad.

It was this initial crackdown that propelled Tikhanovskaya, a full-time mother, to enter the race on behalf of her captive husband.

"Lukashenko jailed a potentially very strong candidate - Tikhanovsky," Belarusian journalist Irina Khalip told this website.

But he "couldn't even imagine" that a housewife would "become a real competitor," Khalip added.

The former Tikhanovsky, Babariko, and Tsepkalo campaigns united behind Tikhanovskaya's candidacy.

And with all three prongs of the opposition movement led by women - Tikhanovskaya herself, Tsepkalo's wife Veronika Tsepkalo, and Babariko's campaign chief Maria Kolesnikova - a romantic story was born.

"The trio ... created an image of women who were capable of being leaders and they gained huge popular support," Belarusian political analyst Katsiaryna Shmatsina said.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko never hid his sexism (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Misogyny backfired

Lukashenko probably miscalculated due to his sexist mores.

The 65-year old dictator, in May, displayed his mentality when he said "society is not ready to vote for a woman" and that a female president did not suit the Belarusian constitution.

"Lukashenko's bigoted, patriarchal, and sexist convictions have always been expressed very vividly," Belarusian journalist Anna Baraban told EUobserver.

He believed a female candidate would put off male voters.

But instead, the revolutionary women appealed to a different side of Belarusian men - their chivalry.

"Tikhanovskaya opted for that battle simply because she loved her husband," Svetlana Tsurikova, a volunteer who helps detained protesters in Belarus, told this website.

But the image of the noble wife appealed "to the heart of every [Belarusian] man," the volunteer said.

Tikhanovskaya's "mild and feminine manner and the jailing of her husband made men want to protect her and fight for her," Tsurikova said.

"We can draw parallels with the idea of the knight and the damsel in distress," she added.

Protest wall against teachers who faked results in school voting stations (Photo: Homoatrox)

Vote-rigging

Meanwhile, there was nothing gentlemanly about the way Lukashenko rigged the vote count.

He won with 80 percent and Tikhanovksaya got 10 percent, his regime said.

But there were no independent or international monitors and there was plenty of evidence of fraud.

At least 500,000 pro-Tikhanovksaya votes vanished into thin air, according to Golos, a Belarusian online vote-monitoring platform.

Election commission members openly discussed parallel real and fake results lists, in a video leaked to the tut.by news agency.

A regional election official, according to the Nasha Niva news website, which published an audio file, also demanded that votes be taken away from Tikhanovksaya and added to Lukashenko's tally.

In a second tut.by video, an election official declined to sign a fake list.

And other officials confessed to independent media, including meduza, RFE/RFL, and rebenok.by, that their election commissions had cheated.

The evidence was so strong the EU declined to recognise Lukashenko's victory.

There were also signs Tikhanovskaya had beaten him in reality.

She won according to some official polling station reports disclosed on election day under public pressure.

She also won by 72 percent against Lukashenko's 14 percent, according to an unofficial exit poll conducted by Sovremennaya Belarus, an activist group.

And Tikhanovskaya won by 82 percent against 6 percent at voting stations abroad, an independent exit poll cited by the RFE/RFL news agency said.

Thousands arrested, many still missing (Photo: Daria Buryakina for tut.by)

Brutality unleashed

Thousands took to the streets, built barricades, and clashed with police between 9 August and 11 August.

Authorities arrested at least 7,000 people and beat and tortured prisoners.

At least four protesters were killed and dozens are still missing, with human rights activists fearing that the real number of fatalities could be higher.

Videos have been published of police savagely beating women.

Detained women complained of inhumane conditions and rape threats.

Belarus' Investigative Committee, on 20 August, also said it was looking into media allegations of rapes of female prisoners.

One of the three women leaders, Veronika Tsepkalo, fled Belarus on 9 August when it became unsafe.

One day later, Tikhanovskaya met top Belarusian officials and was also forced to flee to Lithuania.

She urged people to stop protests in a hostage video, amid speculation authorities had forced her to record the clip by threatening her family.

But once in safety on EU territory, she redoubled appeals for Belarusians to continue demonstrations, and women, once again, played a prominent role.

Demonstrations in Minsk last Sunday (23 August) gathered more than 200,000 people (Photo: Homoatrox)

Flower protests

Thousands of women, many dressed in the red-and-white revolutionary colours, carried flowers onto the streets to appeal against police violence between 13 and 15 August.

Factory workers, mostly men, showed solidarity by holding strikes.

And in the historic events that followed, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against Lukashenko on 16 August and again one week later.

On 14 August, Tikhanovskaya formed a Coordination Council to facilitate transfer of power from Lukashenko's dictatorship to a democratic system.

The council included another eminent woman - Svetlana Alexievich, Belarus' best known writer and a Nobel Prize laureate.

Tikhanovskaya described it as "a peaceful striving of the people for self-determination and basic dignity" in a European Parliament videoconference with MEPs on Tuesday.

But the same day, Lukashenko arrested two Coordination Council leaders, Olga Kovalkova and Sergei Dylevsky, and summoned Alexievich to be interrogated by police.

And as the hardman pondered his next move, it remained to be seen if the women's revolution would lead to freedom, or if he would crush it by brute force.

Author bio

Oleg Sukhov is a reporter at The Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper in Ukraine.

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