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Thais Ayuso Deshmukh: May the man fall – and a woman replace him

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Since the release of the Belarussian Presidential election results on the 9th of August, the streets of the Belarussian capital Minsk have been in havoc. The incumbent president Lukashenko has been placed under immense pressure by the Belarussian people to resign from his position and hold fair and democratic re-elections. Months later, for the first time after nine straight weeks of uninterrupted protests, Lukashenko has finally sat down with the opposition in their holding cells of a secret KGB facility near Minsk in an attempt to ease the public strain.

The elections on the 9th of August represented the characteristic 26-year long rule of Lukashenko. He jailed two opposition candidates as well as a number of journalists and barred the remaining opposition candidate from running. Despite this trend, a surprising turn of events occurred when Svetlana Tikhanovskaya stepped in to replace her jailed husband in the run for the presidential elections.

While acknowledging her lack of political knowledge, she quickly grew in popularity, with a picture of her with Maria Kolesnikova, a campaign chief, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of a barred opposition candidate, becoming the symbol of her campaign. This picture represents more than just a fight to restore democracy in Belarus. It also functions as a symbol of female empowerment and strength.

Women have long been underrepresented in European politics, and the fact that a woman is taking on a powerful man with an entire army at his disposal is a breakthrough. With the majority of the Bellarussian population backing her, she is not just representing freedom but also drawing attention to the significant role women play in society. Lukashenko, known for his misogynistic character and self-portrayal as the classic Slavic “muzhik” or real man, is now contrasted with the loving and caring nature of his female opposition. This is a powerful comparison that further underlines the flaws in his brute attitude toward politics.

The political move by Tikhanovskaya has triggered thousands of women all over the country to flood the streets in peaceful protests while carrying flowers and forming human chains. There has not been such female mass action in the country since the end of the second world war, when women rebuilt large swaths of the war-torn country. This female unity has encouraged thousands of women to reminisce about stories of female agency and reclaim their influence in a society dominated by men. Subsequently, this sentiment could also explain the phenomenon of thousands of women with flowers peacefully surrounding and protecting male protesters, stemming from the idea that the police would never lay hands on a woman – “Only cowards beat women!” (New York Times, 2020).

The situation has brought to light an unusual, yet beautiful fact; women are stronger in this crisis than men, and they are using that strength to lift the entire country. In an age of “#MeToo” and mass gender equality reform, this uprising of thousands of women fighting for freedom sets itself apart. The violent and frankly cowardly response by government authorities has shown not just a lack of rationality, but also a lack of acceptance and maturity towards the new balance of leading figures on the political stage. Lukashenko’s resistance to meet with the female-led opposition and come to an accord as equal counterparts, highlights his utter misunderstanding of the vital role Tikhanovskaya, Kolesnikova and Tsepkalo play in the uprising against him. They have connected with the country, they have won the people’s hearts, and the people are protesting for them to have a voice.

Nevertheless, Lukashenko’s meeting with the opposition was a meeting only attended by male protesters, with no female representation present. This suggests that the dictator is not ready to accept that women have played a crucial role in organizing the protest. Moreover, it is clear that he does not consider them as an equal counterpart in trying to solve this crisis. Lukashenko’s visit may have been a sign of weakness or a call for peace and compromise, but until he formally sits down with the three women leading this reform, he will risk being crushed by the storm that awaits him.

Women show solidarity by protesting in white clothing in front of the Belarussian embassy in Moscow (Source: The Washington Post)

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (center), Veronika Tsepkalo (left) and Maria Kolesnikova (right) striking the iconic campaign pose (Source: The Guardian)

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at a rally before the August general elections (Source: Toronto Star)

Written by Thais Ayuso Deshmukh, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.

Further reading:

The New York Times, October 11, 2020

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