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Will women overthrow Europe’s last dictator?

Aug 09,2020 - Last updated at Aug 09,2020

By Mitchell A. Orenstein and Valery Yakubovich


PHILADELPHIA — Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’s first and only president since 1994, claims to love women. But, like most conservative dictators in the former Soviet bloc, he thinks they have a specific role in society, as mothers or arm candy. In his bid for a sixth consecutive term on August 9, Lukashenko may find that he underestimated Belarusian women, a triumvirate of whom are gunning for his job.

Like US President Donald Trump, Lukashenko does not hide his fondness for attractive women, whom he believes he may treat or favour with impunity. After he was seen dancing at the State Ball with a former Belarusian Miss World contestant, she won a seat in Belarus’s rubber-stamp parliament. Meanwhile, Lukashenko never appears with his wife in public and does not feel the need to inform the electorate of the identity of the mother of his teenage son and presumed successor, Nikolai, who accompanies him to public events.

But while Lukashenko frequently boasts of Belarus’s “beautiful” women, Belarus’s women are angry this year. After the #MeToo movement, Lukashenko’s terrible performance on containing COVID-19, a decade of economic stagnation, and the jailing or disqualification of three leading male candidates for the presidency, women stepped up to lead this year’s revolt.

Someone had to. Since 1994, Belarus’s quinquennial presidential election spectacles have invariably begun with hope for change, only to end with opposition candidates jailed and Lukashenko reelected by a wide margin.

This year, blogger Siarhei Tsikhanousky led the opposition in a creative way, travelling to economically depressed areas to interview people and outlining an anti-establishment program under the slogan, “Stop the Cockroach!” His campaign symbol, a giant bug-crushing slipper, became the opposition meme of the year. With most forms of political protest banned, thousands of people brought slippers into the streets and waved them menacingly.

Not one to take a joke, Lukashenko had Tsikhanousky locked up and denied permission to collect signatures in support of his candidacy. So his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, put herself forward instead. Tsikhanouskaya, a housewife and qualified English teacher with no previous political experience, successfully collected 100,000 required signatures and became an official presidential candidate on July 14.

Lukashenko apparently thought that allowing Tsikhanouskaya to register was a low-risk move. He had previously explained why no woman can be president: “Our Constitution is such that even a man can hardly bear the burden [of the office]. And if you load it onto a woman, she will collapse, poor girl.”

Of course, no other man can win the presidency, either, even if they come from Lukashenko’s own establishment, as two other candidates did: Victor Babariko, the former CEO of a major bank, and Valery Tsepkalo, a former deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United States. When people stood in line for hours to sign up to support these candidates, Babariko was imprisoned for suddenly discovered criminal offenses, and Tsepkalo’s hundreds of thousands of collected signatures were ruled forgeries. With three male frontrunners out, Lukashenko thought he had the election sewn up.

But at a remarkable joint press conference on July 16, the Babariko and Tsepkalo campaigns threw their support behind Tsikhanouskaya, with all three represented by women displaying their campaigns’ symbols: A raised fist for Tsikhanouskaya, a heart for Mariya Kolesnikova, Babariko’s campaign chief, and a “V” for victory for Tsepkalo’s wife, Veronika. By uniting, the trio achieved what few opposition politicians have in Belarus’s short history. Their programme: Release all political prisoners, restore the rule of law, and quickly organise a new, honest presidential election. They continue to campaign together, under the new slogan “We love, we can, we’ll win”, attracting thousands of enthusiastic voters, even in remote towns.

Under constant threat of official violence, with imprisoned husbands who are liable to be tortured, and children who are vulnerable to being seized and bundled into state care, Tsikhanouskaya, Kolesnikova, and Tsepkalo have resorted to creative, powerful, and, to Lukashenko’s consternation, totally lawful improvisations. One recent gathering took the form of a long queue (with social distancing) of people waiting to file a written complaint with the Central Election Commission. The women also promoted a worldwide hackathon to design new digital tools for monitoring electoral fraud, one of Belarus’s leading exports is highly skilled computer programmers. The winner is a digital platform enabling voters to upload a photo of their ballot for an independent count. To demonstrate their participation, supporters are asked to wear a white bracelet while casting their vote.

Tsikhanouskaya is being transformed from a humble housewife into a Belarusian Joan of Arc, as some local media call her. With her and Tsepkalo’s children now safely abroad, she declared her resolve to free her husband and her country from a dictator’s grip. “No one can stop a woman who defends a family, just like no one can stop a woman who demands justice,” she says. The odds against her remain high, but, whatever the election’s outcome, it is already clear that Lukashenko underestimated Belarusian women at his peril.


Mitchell A. Orenstein is professor of Russian and East European Studies and Political Science at University of Pennsylvania. Valery Yakubovich, a native of Belarus, is professor of Management at the ESSEC Business School in France and senior fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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