I witnessed the outburst of the Belarus revolution. It happened as follows.
Minsk on 9th August, election day is nearly over and everyone is waiting impatiently for the official exit poll results. Belarusians are wondering how many votes will be pocketed by the president this time around. Then, the state media announce that the president has won over 80% of the vote. No-one doubted the election would be rigged, but to go this far? A wave of long-repressed outrage surges among the public; outrage that will pave the way for the biggest political protests in the history of the country.
The city is half-deserted. Sirens wail in the distance. The atmosphere is heavy with front-line tension. Crowds start to gather downtown. An hour later, the first stun grenades go off, the first blood is drawn, and hundreds, then thousands of protestors are thrown into police vans and unmarked OMON buses. However, the wave of dissent isn’t easy to hold back.
Lukashenko has rigged every election since his first term in office, skilfully allowing only chosen opposition candidates to run against him in order to sustain the pretence of democracy. However, hardly anyone voted, and most Belarusians did not feel disenfranchised. But this year the president decided that the only opposing candidate would be the wife of an arrested blogger, a woman who previously performed the duties of a stay-at-home mum. He presumed that because she was a housewife, it would not be difficult to convince the nation that the vast majority had supported him once again.
Amazingly enough, this well-oiled machine came apart because of Belarusian women. Why is this so remarkable? Post-communist countries such as Russia and Belarus are riddled with a peculiar brand of patriarchalism inherited from the USSR. After World War II, due to the scarcity of men and their low survival rate, the Soviet man became a rare commodity shrouded in cult-like admiration. Today, he is embodied by Lukashenko, the brawny leader. The president repeatedly mocked his opponent by saying that she had just left the kitchen where she had been “frying cutlets”. What’s more, he often declared that women are too weak to serve as presidents. He clearly drew this stereotypical image of the opposite sex from his younger days. However, recent events have proved him painfully wrong.
Three women stood up to the grim and everlasting Lukashenko: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her collaborators, Maria Kolesnikova and Veranika Tsapkala. It is unclear whether Belarusians truly want a woman to govern the country, or if they would rather vote for the devil himself than allow the current president to remain in power. Either way, something unprecedented happened in global politics: three female politicians started voicing the unrest of an entire nation, regardless of social class or region.
This collective support took on quite unexpected forms. During an election rally in Grodno, the fragile candidate was welcomed by veterans of the airborne forces, a subculture of muscled-up bullies, who chanted: “Svieta, we stand by your side till the end!”
The feminine, emancipatory aspects of the political conflict were even broader. Lukashenko committed his first mistake by underestimating his female adversary. His second wrong move was to order brutal pacification measures. Since half of the protestors were women and girls, hundreds of them were arrested. They were tortured just like the men. The media received terrifying accounts of barbaric treatment and photos of mutilated female bodies. These reports were especially infuriating for conservative citizens, who generally believe that women should be treated more gently than men.
However, the Belarusian girls and women were not discouraged. Two weeks after the elections they organized a big march in Minsk, bringing together well over 10,000 people. On this occasion, they once again played the weaker-gender card and taunted the OMON units for several hours by breaking the police lines or changing the route of the march. The internet was flooded with footage of women rescuing fellow male protesters from the hands of the militia. This was quite a courageous feat considering those functionaries had no scruples about torturing female detainees a few days before.
Moreover, it was the 73-year-old Nina Baginskaya who became an icon of the protests. The woman had been participating in demonstrations for years, with the historical red-and-white flag in hand, doggedly attending all of the feeble rallies organized by the opposition over the decades. She was repeatedly punished with fines and forfeiture for taking part in illegal activities, yet gained nationwide recognition for her perseverance. Many videos were posted online of the petite pensioner grappling with a buffed-up OMON functionary who had tried to take her flag away.
The political empowerment of Belarusian women is a fact. They hunted Lukashenko down, just like Birnam Wood went after Macbeth. The dictator had a specific attitude towards women – he sent his wife Halina away to the countryside, he used beautiful young girls as PR and campaign mascots, but he did not foresee that his power would be challenged by those he had always despised so deeply.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Piechura
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