Belarusian feminists defy authoritarianism: their fight is our fight

Written in collaboration with Silver Linings.

Belarusians occupying the streets of Minsk are struggling for the same democratic rights we take for granted in the UK and assume to be unassailable. Democratic rights are, in fact, hard-won, fragile, and require continuous attention. The feminist-led defiance of Europe’s last dictator is an example of the power mass civil society holds to fight for such rights. Even in a former Soviet state without the luxury of the democratic tradition. Their action is an inspiration for all citizens wanting to live in free, fair, and democratic societies. And while they may seem detached, an irrelevant nation on the other side of Europe, they are fighting for the legitimacy of the rights we enjoy.

The weekend of September 12th marked the fifth consecutive weekend of protests in this struggle against Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko claimed victory in the presidential elections on August 9th, registering 80% of the vote. The opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, rejected the result due to its implausibility, with the EU and US also acknowledging foul-play. While Lukashenko has faced, and overcome, multiple protests by the Belarusian democracy movement since his first election in 1994, this time things are different. Feminists have taken the lead and they are not backing down.

Firstly, there is a huge irony to the dilemma the quasi-dictator finds himself in. Without his sexist disdain for women, we might not even be talking about a struggle for democracy. Let me explain.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, now leader of the combined opposition, replaced her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, as an opposition candidate following the latter’s imprisonment by the regime. Veronika Tsepkalo, another leadership figure in the opposition, took over the candidacy of her husband, Valery Tsepkalo, after he fled to Moscow over fear of arrest. Similarly, Maria Kolesnikova took up the political mantel following the arrest of her campaign leader, Viktor Babariko, on dubious bribery charges. These three women then combined their candidacy, an act of feminist defiance against blatant anti-democratic practices and authoritarian rule. And Lukashenko’s hubris allowed it all to happen.

Not only has feminism proved vital to the opposition’s leadership, it is a central reason to why these protests will not go away. The authoritarian regime did not shy away from using violence against pro-democracy protesters immediately following the election. But the strongly traditional and patriarchal nature of Belarusian society meant security forces were unsure of how to deal with masses of female protesters that followed this initial wave. Women have come out in their thousands to form ‘solidarity chains’ to oppose the detention and torture of male and female protesters. It is now apparent that women are the leading force in these protests, that number well over 100,000 people each weekend. The appearance of LGBT rights supporters last weekend is just another sign of the movement’s growing boldness.

This same boldness was shown by opposition leaders immediately following the election result. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya established the Coordination Council, tasked with creating a dialogue with the President’s administration to organise the legal and non-violent transfer of power. Lukashenko’s response has been predictably violent and repressive. On September 7th, opposition campaigner, Maria Kolesnikova, was kidnapped along with two of her colleagues and driven to the border of Ukraine to be deported. On September 9th, Maxim Znak, member of the Coordination Council, was taken by masked men from his apartment, leaving Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize winning journalist, as the only member of the Coordination Council still free in the country.

This may seem like a bleak state of affairs, but there is so much hope. Kolesnikova, having been kidnapped and threatened with violence at the Ukrainian border, tore up her passport to prevent deportation. This act of defiance shows the power the opposition holds, it shows these women are bold and will not be intimidated by threats. It shows they are brave and even willing to endure violence for what they know is a moral and just cause. This confidence and belief diffuses through civil society, acting as a source of energy for the thousands of protesters on the ground.

The geography of the region means Russia’s potential influence is a worry. Vladimir Putin commented on August 27th there is a “police reserve” ready to help Lukashenko when the “situation gets out of control”. While Lukashenko has impressed the importance of this situation upon Putin, warning that “if Belarus protest succeed, Russia will be next”. On the flip-side, Belarus’ other neighbour, Poland, has declared its support for Belarus’ opposition, with Veronika Tsepkalo among many important opposition activists taking refuge in the country. So the geopolitical balance of power is not entirely in Putin’s favour, although he will most likely do all he can to deny Belarusian’s a real democracy. It is therefore reassuring Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is free to lead the opposition beyond Belarus’ border where she can pressure the international community to act. She has already called for UN sanctions to be imposed, with the EU committing to imposing their own sanctions.

In the past 24 hours Putin has pledged to lend $1.5 billion to Lukashenko, the latter claiming ‘a friend is in trouble’. He most certainly is. But will we see a military intervention from Russia? In a limited, fascistic, and thuggish manner, maybe. Will this make the situation worse? It seems likely. Such an intervention has the potential to exacerbate the problem rather than suppress it. The presence of a foreign force would further galvanise the opposition in civil society, as the regime would appear increasingly illegitimate. Putin would then be forced to go the full mile to pull off a Crimea-style annexation of the country. When democratic urges become animated, authoritarians can only become more ruthless. But this simultaneously weakens their position, as we can see occuring in Belarus.

These are worrying times and we should be under no illusions that the world is currently peppered with authoritarian strongmen, Putin being one of the forerunners. Holding them to account is increasingly more difficult on the international stage, as our own Government pursues Trumpian-style tactics to undermine our democratic institutions, and even threatens to break international law. But the silver-lining in this is not the international power-play. It is the mass civil society activism, and the inspirational and defiant actions of its feminist leaders, that we can all look on in awe and with pride. They are fighting for the same universal rights we hold. Their example is a reminder of the power residing dormant in every collective mass of people. Their bravery in unlocking this power can be a lesson to us all.

By Oliver Storey

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