In Belarus, women lead revolt against tyranny and reaction

On Aug. 16, 2020, tens of thousands of Belarusians demonstrate against the government in Minsk. PHOTO: Максим Шикунец
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Since August, the streets of Minsk, capital of the eastern European nation of Belarus, have been flooded with protesters demanding change. Women are in the forefront of this upheaval.

The fuse was lit by the August 9 presidential election. Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory with 80% of the vote. But the people called foul. Protests erupted demanding he step down. The European Union has backed the charges of widespread fraud and refused to accept the election results.

President or dictator? Alexander Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994 and has been in power for 26 years. Often labeled in mainstream press as the “last dictator in Europe,” he is a self-described authoritarian whose government rests on repression, fraud and corruption.

Lukashenko’s regime is notorious for its history of human rights violations along with persecution of national minorities, opposition politicians and journalists. The years-long record is so blatant that the United States and the European Union have imposed personal sanctions on dozens of Belarusian officials responsible for political suppression and forced disappearances.

A former satellite of the Soviet Union, Belarus shares a common border with Russia. There are strong, if tense, economic and political ties between the two countries. The turmoil has prompted Lukashenko to ask Putin for assistance to enforce order. Putin, always looking for ways to build Russia’s imperialist ambitions, seems inclined to comply. As the protests spiraled up, Russia sent specialists to keep Belarus State TV and Radio up and running. In late October, the head of Russian foreign intelligence met with Lukashenko in Minsk. More alarmingly, Putin has offered to send special Russian riot troops to quell the upsurge.

The female opposition. The people of Belarus have long been daunted due to brutal retaliation by the state. But the combination of a disintegrating welfare system, dismantled state-run services, a five-year wage freeze and skyrocketing prices were too much for them to stand.

The tipping point was reached when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya joined the presidential race. Her pro-democracy husband was a major political opponent to Lukashenko, but he was arrested on bogus charges.

In a shrewd political move, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya ran in his stead. Lukashenko’s misogyny led him to dismiss her candidacy, stating that the country wasn’t ready for a woman leader. He was wrong.

Tsikhanouskaya formed a pact with two other female opposition figures, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo. The trio became leaders of a broad-based opposition that denounced the rigged election and demanded Lukashenko step down.

After the elections, threats by the regime forced Tsikhanouskaya and Tsepkalo to flee. Attempts to remove Kolesnikova from Belarus failed when she ripped up her passport at the border. She has since been detained in Minsk and charged with undermining national security.

But this attempt to cut off the head of the resistance failed. The spark had already been lit. Women, workers, students, leftists and retirees came out in droves, and stayed out. According to ABC news, the U.N. human rights investigator demanded in October that the government “stop repressing its own people,” noting that over 20,000 were detained in August and September and hundreds reported beaten, intimidated, tortured or ill-treated in custody.

Yet the almost daily protests continue. In response to a call for a general strike, on Oct. 25 an anti-government rally drew 200,000 participants. The government exerted enormous pressure on workers in the state-owned enterprises to stay on the job so the general strike did not quite come to fruition. But the continued grassroots pressure is causing shake-ups across the country. A women’s march on Nov. 1 drew a huge, multi-generational crowd.

The massive outpourings show no signs of stopping despite increasingly harsh crack-downs using stun guns, water cannons, rubber bullets and mass arrests.

In addition to ramping up state violence, Lukashenko has closed the borders with Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. Ostensibly done to control coronavirus spread, these countries have been accused by Lukashenko of fomenting rebellion in Belarus. The border to Russia — and the threat of Putin’s troops — remains open.

As this paper go to press, the end of the story is not yet decided. What is clear is that the leadership of women has shattered stereotypes and catalyzed a new spirit of rebellion and solidarity. They, together with workers, retirees and students in the streets of Belarus, are fired up. As their chant says, “We believe we can. We will win.”

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