One woman and her quest to bring home democracy
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Belarus recently witnessed its presidential elections on August 9, 2020. Since 1994, “Europe’s last dictator,”1 Alexander Lukashenko, has won every election in the last 26 years. Although there were widespread allegations of electoral fraud and reports of elections being neither free nor fair this year too, Lukashenko deemed himself the winner with 80% of the votes. The road to this election has been murky, with multiple instances of opposition members (such as Syarhey Tsikhanouski) and alternative candidates (such as Viktar Babaryka) being jailed, disqualified, or forced to flee the country.
One surprising candidate, however, was allowed to go through the entire electoral process without being deterred: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She was able to register for the ballot, collect signatures to be registered as a candidate and subsequently appear on the ballot.
A former teacher and homemaker, Sviatlana has now become a household name in Belarus. Promising to seek justice and not power, she impulsively2 entered the race after her husband, Tsikhanouski, a popular vlogger, entrepreneur, presidential-hopeful and critic of the government, was arrested and then barred from collecting signatures to get on the ballot. Her entry into the race, despite having no political experience was largely in response to her husband’s arrest and motivation to challenge Lukashenko’s iron grip on power3.
The long-winding road
Vowing to continue her husband’s campaign, Tsikhanouskaya found widespread support in voters who were tired of Lukashenko’s repressive rule. Although she now leads a united opposition, initially, she was seen as a political lightweight by Lukashenko, who saw her as nonthreatening and never took her or her campaign seriously and never sought to have her arrested. At one of her final campaign rallies, Tsikhanouskaya drew in tens of thousands of supporters and was termed the biggest opposition gathering in decades – proving that she was not one to be underestimated.
In addition to political and personal challenges, she has had to face sexist attacks by the incumbent president who dismissed female candidates as “poor women” and said that he wishes to change the constitution to allow only military veterans (all male) to run for president. He claimed that the Belarusian society was not ready for a woman-led government. Despite these hurdles, Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign steadily gained ground and ushered in a new wave of women-led political activism in Belarus.
Of Female Solidarity
Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign has been aided by Veranika Tsapkala, a graduate of international relations and business management who is a regional business development manager for a large international corporation4, and Maryya Kalesnikava, a concert flute player and the art director for the cultural organisation OK165. Veranika’s husband, Valeriy Tsapkala, was a former ambassador to Washington and was denied registration as a presidential candidate and Maryya was the campaign manager for Viktar Babaryka. The trio have now become the face of change, calling for peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime, democratic reforms and free and fair elections.
These women have been fighting immense resistance from Lukashenko’s administration. Amnesty International reported that the state authorities are targeting these women with gender-specific reprisals and blatant discrimination, including threats to take their children into state custody and threats of sexual violence6. Owing to such threatening phone calls, Tsikhanouskaya was forced to send her children away from the country but refused to quit the race.
In spite of the challenges they faced, the trio continuously affirmed the power of female solidarity and strongly avowed that “they’re not second-class but equal to men”7and were determined to win the election. Nina Stuzhynskaya, a Belarusian women’s rights activist, claimed that “Belarusian society has long been ripe for a woman in a leadership role” and that the “appearance of these women in the public arena is a beautiful thing. It’s encouraging and optimistic.”6 They gained the support of Belarusian author and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, who said that even though they are forgotten, women have always answered history’s call in the country. Ultimately, these women represent a future for the country that is rid of corruption and authoritarianism and a move away from the dangerous regime that currently exists.
Tsikhanouskaya’s presidential bid was buttressed on promises of addressing Lukashenko’s failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic and a stagnant state-run economy. Her campaign strategy has been threefold: encouraging voting, pushing for independent election observers, and urging her supporters to wear white bracelets to symbolize the honesty and purity of the campaign and mobilizing to defend her victory through peaceful and legal means.
For Tsikhanouskaya, the main goal is to hand the power back to the people and establish a fresh, free, and fair electoral system with a ballot comprising all candidates who were arrested or forced to drop out by the incumbent government. Promising to relinquish her power, she wants to give Belarusians the chance to elect new politicians and a return to the constitution of 1994 with more checks and balances. She also promised to free all political and economic prisoners.8
Tsikhanouskaya cast her ballot on election day and was detained by the election commission for several hours before she fled to Lithuania, out of fear of her arrest and concern for the safety of her children. Although the Election Commission declared Lukashenko as the winner with 80% of the vote, Tsikhanouskaya rejected the claim that she had won only 10% of the vote. In a video she released several days after arriving in Lithuania, she stated that she had actually won 60-70% of the vote, in places where proper counting measures took place. She also called for mayors to organize peaceful rallies across the country on August 15 and 16, 2020, encouraging voters to not stay on the sidelines9.
Across Belarus, mass walkouts have been organized and protests have erupted, calling for Lukashenko to step down. Peaceful protestors have been met with intense crackdowns, police brutality and torture from security services. The response from the international community has been inadequate at best with few condemnations from the US and Europe. EU foreign ministers deliberated on sanctions.
Despite the purported election result, Tsikhanouskaya, Tsapkala, and Kalesnikava have sprung hope in Belarus, for the first time in decades, by raising awareness and giving hope to ordinary Belarusians. By tackling the discriminatory, corrupt, incompetent, and authoritative government head on and hoping to shake up the status quo, these women sparked a powerful movement of dissent and subversion that will not die out any time soon. By speaking truth and justice to power, Tsikhanouskaya and her campaign are affirming the fact that one or a few individuals with conviction and grit can challenge power structures.