Franak Viacorka is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
For the first time since the country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, protesters have a real chance of pushing out a long-ruling strongman, and it’s all because of women. You don’t have to cast around to find the feminist angle in Belarus — it’s front and center. This is all the more remarkable because officialdom remains deeply patriarchal, an attitude that goes all the way to the top.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who has reigned as dictator for the past 26 years, has said women cannot run Belarus. “Our constitution is not for women,” he said this year. “Our society has not matured enough to vote for a woman. This is because by constitution the president handles a lot of power.”
Now women have set out to prove him wrong. Ironically, the employees of Lukashenko’s favorite factory, the Minsk Tractor Works, are chanting “Sveta,” the affectionate form of Svetlana. They are cheering for the 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who went head-to-head with Lukashenko in the Aug. 9 election and may very well have won. Over the past few weeks, as opposition rallies swelled with unprecedented crowds, women have led new forms of protest, organized themselves in a leaderless movement, gathered help for families and fought alongside men on the barricades. Within the past few days, in a potentially decisive battle for the loyalty of the security forces, they’ve been handing out flowers to riot police.
Lukashenko’s mismanagement of the covid-19 pandemic has helped inspire the new opposition. While other countries shut down their cities and towns, he recklessly encouraged people to drink vodka and drive tractors, assuring his people that everything would be fine. It wasn’t. In Belarus, most doctors are women, and the death rates are among the highest in Europe. Doctors were the first professional group to join the protests in August.
After Lukashenko jailed his major male rivals before the election, the state allowed Tikhanovskaya to run in the name of the opposition. Lukashenko foolishly dismissed her chances. Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a popular blogger who wanted to run for president himself but was arrested, has said repeatedly that she does not want to become the country’s leader. A former English teacher who favors ponytails and speaks casually, she has made it clear that she would immediately hold new elections if she ultimately wins.
On Aug. 9, Lukashenko’s government proclaimed him the winner with 80 percent of the vote despite massive fraud that has drawn condemnation from the United States and the European Union.
The day after the election, as Tikhanovskaya went to the Central Election Commission to file a formal complaint, she was detained for seven hours and forced to record a chilling video. Speaking in a monotone, she urged people to accept the results. Her demeanor strongly suggested she was under duress.
Hours later, she fled to Vilnius, Lithuania, where she revealed that she had fled because the authorities had threatened her family.
Even without Tikhanovskaya, protests across Belarus show no signs of abating. If anything, they’re gaining momentum. Social media channels are rife with examples of government officials and members of the security forces joining the protesters.
Now, others are throwing their weight behind the opposition, including workers of the Minsk metro and several huge factories. These crowds of mainly men in work clothes emblazoned with the names of major state-run enterprises followed women into the streets, but they wouldn’t be striking if it weren’t for the things women have done. Their presence raises the stakes considerably for the embattled Lukashenko, who has now gone so far as to appeal to Vladimir Putin for help.
We do not know yet how things will end in Belarus. What we do know is that Tikhanovskaya — and the many women alongside her — have set powerful examples in recent weeks and have already changed Belarus for the better. They’re almost certain to play a crucial role in the events yet to come.