While tens of thousands continue to march in Minsk and other Belarusian cities, women have taken a particularly palpable role in the mass protests against Alexander Lukashenko. Even last Sunday, in the face of police crackdowns and brutal beatings by masked men, they have shown remarkable resilience and empathy, and no sign of giving up on their calls for a change of leadership.
When in November 2019 the 22-year-old winner of a beauty contest Maryia Vasilevich became a member of the Belarusian Parliament, a number of international media outlets immediately wrote about “Alexander Lukashenko’s favourite” and her new accomplishment. At that moment Belarusian, the parliament achieved again an informal quota of more than 30 per cent of women. Earlier, many served as the Belarusian president’s proxies during the previous elections, such as employees of state bodies or his favourite singers or sportswomen.
Female members of the parliament have never been especially active or vocal in the decision-making processes. The only exceptions were Alena Anisim and Hanna Kanapatskaya, who became deputies during the previous parliamentary elections in 2016; they were the only representatives of the opposition there. However, with the end of their term in 2019 and no re-election, the Belarusian legislative branch risked remaining without pro-active female voices once again.
The women at the executive branch never played a huge role in Belarusian politics. Women’s highest positions in the Belarusian state bodies never reached higher than the minister of education, health or labour issues and the head of the president’s administration. In other words, no key strategic ministerial positions connected with military, defence and foreign relations have ever been held by women.
The exceptions occurred only in the case of a body directly ensuring the continuation of the presidential power, such as the Head of the Election Commission (CEC) or the president’s administration where an absolute loyalty is necessary. The brightest example for this case is one of the longest-serving Belarusian official, Head of CEC Lidziya Yarmoshyna, who has been falsifying elections and referenda in Belarus since 1996.
The Belarusian constitution is not for women
When the presidential campaign of 2020 started, nothing signalled any change of women’s status in the high-level Belarusian politics. Nevertheless, four women declared their intention to run in the presidential election. Alexander Lukashenko did not seem to be concerned by this fact, in light of a long-term tradition of a lack of female competitors. Tatsiana Karatkevich who ran in the 2015 presidential election representing the Tell the Truth opposition movement, never used any radical rhetoric and since then became a rather marginal figure in the opposition. For this reason, when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, running instead of her jailed husband, the popular vlogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, began to gather huge audiences, the Belarusian leader was taken by surprise.
Initially, Lukashenko was using his usual image: he continued to surround himself with young attractive women from the presidential protocol services and appeared with them in public. These services became infamous for recruiting young attractive women from beauty pageants to accompany the Belarusian leader and his close circle for formal and informal events.
When this strategy did not work out, Alexander Lukashenko started to condemn the whole idea of the female presidency. The Belarusian president publicly denounced the Belarusian Constitution pointing out that “it is not written for a woman” as it is “too hard for a woman to bear the burden” of the presidential post.
Belarusian public opinion reacted immediately. Several Belarusian women including celebrities denounced Lukashenko’s statement. A group of women made a video with many women condemning such statements and spread it in social media. Belarusian women were deeply insulted and irritated by such statements and keep repeating them throughout the whole month of protests.
The first visual symbol of the Belarusian female protest emerged when the Belarusian authorities came up with a way to get rid of the major Lukashenko’s rival, the long-term head of Belgazprombank, Viktar Babaryka. Mr Babaryka has become renowned not only for his professional successes but also for collecting priceless Belarusian art pieces which he managed to return to Belarus during the years of his work in Belgazprombank. In recent years, many of the well-known paintings were exhibited in various art galleries in Belarus, and the collection kept growing.
When Viktar Babaryka and his son Eduard were arrested, Belarusian state media and authorities’ websites published several reportages insinuating various financial crimes by the Belgazprombank leadership and businesses related to the family, including crowdfunding platforms collecting money for medical employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. The art collection became another ‘victim’ of the alleged criminal investigation.
All the paintings were seized, including the most expensive one in contemporary Belarus named “Eva” by Chaim Soutine, an expressionist of Jewish-Belarusian origin.
The painting became ubiquitous in collages on the Belarusian internet. Ewa was depicted showing rude gestures hinting at the public attitude towards the Belarusian authorities and became the most popular picture to be printed on a T-shirt, a cup or sticker. Belarusians inside the country and abroad started to re-produce the painting on a massive scale creating a real pop-art industry from the painting. All those who participate in demonstrations and protests were wearing clothes with Eva’s picture thus making her a symbol of resistance and discontent with the regime’s decision to deny registration of Viktar Babaryka, who brought Eva back to Belarus.
Three graces in a joint campaign
After two main Lukashenko’s rivals in the presidential election Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsapkala were denied registration to participation, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya became the only strong oppositional candidate left. Almost immediately she declared that she would unite with two other headquarters led by Maria Kalesnikava, representative of Viktar Babaryka, and Veranika Tsapkala, Valery Tsapkala’s wife and head of his election headquarters. According to the three women, it took them only fifteen minutes to find common ground and decide to combine the joint efforts during the presidential campaign. This seemed to be impossible for the candidates challenging Aliaksandr Lukakashenka in previous elections; never before was it that fast and straightforward.
Tsikhanouskaya, Kalesnikava and Tsapkala immediately invented their own logo – a heart, a fist and victory sign – which they showed after their announcement on the unification. The symbols became viral and Belarusians started to reproduce them in various forms. Moreover, the three women looked fantastic together, complimentary both in their actions and speeches and even in the clothes they were wearing.
‘The Three Graces’ were gathering dozens of thousands of people around Belarus. Belarusians greeted every their appearance with excitement and support, in big cities and small towns, in all the regions. It was Sviatlana, Maria and Veranika who now became the face of the opposition movement.
The three women created a powerful message of legitimate and trustworthy female leadership, treating the people of Belarus with empathy and love, while remaining authentic and emotional, but also brave and strong. They created an inspirational impulse for Belarusian women who for years had been deprived of their chance to be an integral part of the high-level political decision-making process.
Hope and joy disappeared on the election day when the Belarusian authorities utilised their usual model of electoral falsifications and violence against those who protested against the rigged election results. Thousands of peaceful demonstrators were beaten, detained and tortured throughout Belarus. Several persons were killed and dozens went missing. The country entered a phase of mourning and despair.
According to the testimonies of the detainees, women were treated a bit better in the detention centres and prisons, but they still got humiliated, beaten and raped. Many of them realised there should be another way to stop the endless violence. On 12 and 13 August, Belarusian women across the country started to form ‘chains of solidarity’. Wearing white clothes and holding hands and posters with peaceful mottos, they called upon the authorities to stop the violence and hear their voices.
On 14 August, when a massive demonstration took place in front of the House of Parliament in Minsk, military forces put down their shields and the Belarusian women started hugging and kissing them. Many female protesters left their flowers near the soldiers and were crying. The women did not want to see any more blood or forceful fights. They realised that their strongest weapon is themselves, being there but remaining calm and peaceful, feminine and empathic.
The traditions of ‘white protests’ and female marches continued. Since then, every Saturday, the women marched in Belarusian cities and towns, and also abroad, holding hands, carrying flowers and posters, singing lullabies and folk songs. Many of them organised flash mobs and created videos for Belarusian and international audiences. They were calling for non-recognition of the results of the election and for support of the Belarusian population. In their interviews, the Belarusian women underlined that in the times of excessive violence they did not see another way end cruelties happening in the Belarusian streets, except for protesting themselves in the most peaceful manner.
Repressions against women
During August, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Maria Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala faced a number of repressive measures and threats. Veranika Tsapkala joined her husband in Russia one day before the elections due to the persecution threats. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was forced to leave the country for Lithuania on 11 August after a conversation at the Central Election Commission where she also had to make a humiliating video.
The oppositional headquarters continued their work and established a Coordination Council already on 14 August 2020. It was formed on the basis of an online competition which attracted thousands of active citizens to apply. Five out of eight people from its Presidium are women. In addition to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Maria Kalesnikava from the initial election headquarters trio, three more remarkable women joined the Presidium. They are Sviatlana Alexievich, a Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, Volha Kavalkova, Belarusian Christian Democracy co-chair, who was initially running for the presidential election and then joined Tsikhanouskaya’s team, and Liliya Vlasava – an experienced and well-known lawyer and mediator.
Although the Presidium managed to work for several weeks, its members participated in the regular Sunday’s marches and came to support workers on strikes, at the end of August Belarusian authorities invented a mechanism to expel them from the public scene. Initially, they detained Volha Kavalkova and the head of the strike committee from Minsk Tractor Works in Minsk Siarhei Dyleuski. Ms Kavalkova then was brought to the border with Poland and forced to leave Belarus on 5 September 2020. On 31 August 2020, the Committee of State Control detained Liliya Vlasava – who still remains in prison.
Two other prominent female members of the Coordination Council Presidium were remaining free – Maria Kalesnikava and Sviatlana Alexievich. But already on 7 September Kalesnikava was abducted in the city centre of Minsk. The next day Maria Kalesnikava was taken to the Belarusian-Ukrainian border with her colleagues Anton Radniankou and Ivan Krautsou. Unlike the accompanying men, Kalesnikava managed to tear her passport and went back to the Belarusian territory.
Now she is facing criminal charges of the power seizure. In the meantime Presidium Members Pavel Latushka, former Ambassador and Minister of Culture, left Belarus, whereas Maxim Znak was detained and is facing similar charges as Maria Kalesnikava.
On 9 September 2020, only Presidium Member Svetlana Alexievich remains free, however, she publicly declared that unknown people were trying to break into her Minsk apartment. European diplomats and journalists immediately arrived at the Alexievich’s apartment in order to protect her from the police.
Repressions were having an impact upon the protesting women. Those who joined student protests and solidarity chains after the abduction of Maria Kalesnikava on 7 September 2020, were brutally detained and beaten. Their tears and creams did not stop the riot police – with no insignia – from putting them into the vans with no number plates and taking the women to detention centres.
Meanwhile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Volha Kavalkova and Veranika Tsapkala re-united in Warsaw. During their meetings on 9 September 2020, they admired the bravery of their colleagues and friends, especially Maria Kalesnikava, who despite the risk of persecution at home, made the authorities change their plans of her expulsion from the country.
The Belarusian authorities clearly have realised the power of Belarusian women and therefore have started to treat them as brutally as men. Whilst the repressive machine keeps giving orders that lead to detentions and beatings of women, Belarusian female leaders and protesters keep demonstrating their courage and determination to change the country they live in. Belarusian women’s emancipation happened quickly and visibly, but will definitely stay.
The Belarusian authorities now have a new powerful, unstoppable rival – Belarusian women – and they cannot ignore this driving force anymore.
A Polish version of this article is available on Res Publica Nowa.