Blog | November 2020
The female silhouette of the Belarusian uprising
by Artem Galushko
There has recently been the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Resolution on Women, Peace and Security (S/RES/1325). It emphasizes the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, as well as acknowledges that it is impossible to achieve the effective realization of peace and security without the full involvement and equal participation of women in all political processes. The landmark significance of the resolution has been confirmed by subsequent successful and impactful participation of women in peace negotiations and humanitarian response in Bosnia, Yemen, Georgia and other conflict-affected countries. A crucial role played by women in a peaceful protest movement in Belarus, a former Soviet republic which borders with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and Ukraine, has also attracted strong international attention.
At first, it looked like the official results of the presidential elections on August 9 gave the incumbent president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka what he wanted. According to the state election commission, Lukashenka won the elections already in the first round with 80% of the vote and could serve his sixth term in office. The same official results gave only 10% of votes cast to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was the main candidate from the opposition. Nevertheless, across the country people met Lukashenka’s victory with disbelief and resentment. Arrests of opposition politicians and civic activists prior to elections, refusal of state election authorities to register opposition candidates, electoral fraud and absence of independent election observers turned the election results into a farce. The mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic along with high corona infection and mortality rates, a looming economic collapse and Lukashenka’s brazen denial of reality created a popular discontent and mobilized protest moods. The government has either arrested or expelled from the country those opposition leaders who could channel the public frustration into a popular political movement.
The three women, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Maria Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala, united the opposition forces and took over the place of arrested presidential candidates. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband and Kalesnikava’s political associate were among the arrested presidential candidates. Tsapkala’s husband had to flee the country with their children to avoid the arrest. The opposition trio has decided that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a housewife and a high school teacher without any prior political experience, should run instead of her husband as the main opposition candidate and challenge Lukashenka. The state central election commission had no objections and registered Tsikhanouskaya as a presidential candidate. The election campaign thus transformed into a ‘competition’ between the thirty-seven-year-old schoolteacher and the sixty-five-year-old incumbent president who is also known as the last dictator of Europe (Bennett, 2012). The ‘competition’ was such that only the incumbent president Lukashenka could remain omnipresent and unchallenged in the state-controlled media, have his ‘achievements’ publicized and receive praise from allies in China and Russia as well as statements of ‘broad public support and affection’ from the army, law enforcement agencies and other government-controlled institutions . Therefore, the official election results of Lukashenka’s ‘victory’ with 80% of the vote was supposed to be the natural and inevitable outcome of the ‘intense election race’. Yet, when the state exit polls showed Lukashenka’s ‘landslide victory’, the country-wide protests broke at a scale unprecedented for Belarus.
Although Alexander Lukashenka came to power in 1994 through the first ever democratic elections held in Belarus after the fall of Communism, all presidential campaigns won by him since then were neither free nor fair. Nevertheless, after his yet another ‘victory’ in the 2020 elections Lukashenka did not actually act like a president who has just received the majority support. When peaceful protestors approached his presidential residence in Minsk, the world could see the bizarre images of Lukashenka’s press photo op with his fifteen-year-old son in full military gear and two assault rifles on a table in front of them. The international community did not recognize his secret inauguration ceremony conducted in violation of the procedure proscribed by the constitution and attended only by police and army officials. Tsikhanouskaya sought to serve only as a provisional president until the new democratic elections take place. Still, in a futile attempt to belittle his main opponent, Alexander Lukashenka stated that the country’s Constitution was not written for a woman and the Belarusian society is not yet ready to have a female president (In fact, no constitutional provisions restrict women’s rights to occupy public office in Belarus. On the contrary, Articles 80, 32, 42 guarantee equal rights for women and men). Lukashenka later elaborated that ‘the Belarusian constitution is such that it is hard even for a man to carry this ‘presidential burden’. If a woman is to carry out this duty, the ‘poor person’ will simply collapse under the weight [of the presidency].’ He then added that he, of course, meant no disrespect towards women.
Ironically, Lukashenka’s ‘cunning plan’ to have a young woman without any prior political experience as an easy target for his election campaign has backfired badly on him. On the one hand, even the Belarusian opposition did not expect such massive protests and international condemnation of the regime. On the other hand, paradoxically, Tsikhanouskaya became a true people’s president exactly because she lost the staged elections and ran her campaign till the end without any chance of winning in the first place. A perfect ‘sparring partner’ in the rigged game of the regime backed by the Soviet-made KGB and puppet courts, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya received all the sympathy of common Belarusian people who saw that she stood for them and her family when she stayed on the ‘losing side’. Sviatlana’s husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski earned the same popular support with his YouTube blog a ‘Country for Life’, which exposed the regime and presented an alternative image of Belarus, whose people could have a decent life at home without going abroad. Like his wife, Siarhei also took the risk of putting himself in harm’s way when he announced that he would run for presidency and was arrested shortly afterwards. Due to threats, the couple’s minor children left the country before the elections. This personal sacrifice did not go unnoticed and granted Tsikhanouskaya such support and legitimacy Lukashenka could never have even with his rigged election results.
In the face of the open public disobedience, workers’ strikes in the key sectors of economy and peaceful protests in support of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenka lost his carefully promoted image of the ‘Father of the Nation’. The state-controlled media ran a smear campaign against the protest movement by speculating that demonstrations include mostly unemployed young people, foreign mercenaries, drug addicts, violent extremists and other ‘marginal social groups’ that receive money from vicious ‘external powers’. In response, the protest movement driven by the Telegram messaging app Live channels like ‘Nexta’ and others came with creative, out of the box solutions such as regular Women’s Marches that included both seniors and youth from various social and professional groups. These marches crashed the government propaganda narrative about the marginal character of the protest. Women who joined the marches gave flowers to puzzled members of the riot police, hugged male protestors to protect them from police brutality (police violence against women is less likely in the presence of cell phone cameras), named and shamed violent policemen by tearing off their masks, chanted together and sang Belarusian folk songs such as ‘Kupalinka’, known to everyone in Belarus. There must also be no doubt that such peaceful resistance methods are met with arbitrary arrests, use of weapons against unarmed civilians, torture and prolonged deprivation of liberty in facilities that in the times of the global pandemic become contagion zones that expose detained protestors to a higher risk of the virus transmission.
The peaceful character of the Belarusian uprising does not change the fact that Lukashenka received his nickname of Europe’s last dictator for a reason. In his latest revelations to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, a former member of a police death-squad in Belarus in the nineties confirmed that Lukashenka’s critics and opponents became victims of kidnappings, torture, and extrajudicial executions. Nowadays even the peaceful women’s marches face police brutality. Plain-clothed and uniformed men without insignia detain people on the streets and put them in cars without license plate numbers. Among those detained during a Women’s March in Minsk was Nina Bahinskaya, a 73-year-old woman who always comes to the rallies with a Belarusian national white-red-white flag, which became a symbol of the protest. Police has also sought to interrogate Nobel Laureate Sviatlana Aleksievich, who is a member of the opposition coordination council, in a criminal case related to the ‘illegal seizure of power’. In response to police brutality, participants of the women’s marches organized themselves even more. Women create the human chain, which makes it difficult for the riot police to detain protestors one by one, as well as start screaming, which has a truly paralyzing effect on the attackers. While the violence against the protest movement continues, it is certain that prospective investigation of crimes against protestors, as well as increased participation of women in the development and implementation of restorative and reparatory justice measures would be indispensable for the future national reconciliation in Belarus.
Now the EU, the US, the UK and Canada have already initiated targeted sanctions against Lukashenka and his regime. The German Parliament has adopted a resolution calling for new elections and condemning violence against protestors in Belarus. Given that Belarus has not yet joined the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights cannot review complaints from Belarusian applicants. However, decisions delivered by the United Nations Human Rights Council on the landmark cases from Belarus could provide authoritative opinions on the situation in the country. UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus Anaïs Marin also has the necessary UN mandate to monitor and propose recommendations in response to the latest developments in Belarus. The Criminal Code of Belarus (Khomich, Barkov, Marchuk, 2019) provides another avenue for the criminal prosecution of offences committed against protestors. Police and other government officials of Belarus should remember that their inaction and/or perpetration of offences could be one day subject to the very same law they are supposed to enforce and protect (in particular, Article 426, Section 3 of the Criminal Code – Abusing public office and exceeding authority; Chapter 19 – Crimes against life and health; Chapter 23 – Crimes against constitutional rights and freedoms). In terms of more immediate and practical steps that can be taken, the latest meetings of the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya with the senior public officials in Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw and Vilnius give hope that there could be no business as usual with the regimes that persecute opposition and crack down on peaceful marches and rallies.
Belarus' Constitution of 1994 with Amendments through 2004, at https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Belarus_2004.pdf?lang=en.
Bennett, B. (2012) The Last Dictatorship in Europe: Belarus Under Lukashenko, Hurst: Columbia University Press.
Human Rights Watch. „Belarus: Systematic Beatings, Torture of Protesters “, 15. September 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/15/belarus-systematic-beatings-torture-protesters.
Karpenko, A., ‘Lukashenko: If the constitution is loaded on a woman, the poor person will collapse’, News of Belarus, available in Russian at https://euroradio.fm/ru/lukashenko-esli-konstituciyu-zagruzit-na-zhenshchinu-ona-ruhnet-bedolaga.
Khomich V.M., Barkov A.V., Marchuk V.V., The Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus: Scholarly commentary on law and practice (National Centre of Legal Information Minsk 2019) – Ugolovnyi Kodeks Respubliki Belarus: nauchno-prakticheskiy kommentariy (NCPI Nationalny centr pravovoy informatsii 2019).