The Fledgling Opposition of Belarus
As Svetlana Tikhanovaskaya(pictured) took the stage in a campaign rally at Minsk, she was greeted by hundreds of flags and balloons painted in red and white with her campaign symbols - a heart, a clenched fist and a victory sign drawn on them. Wherever she campaigned, thousands of people gathered to hear her speak. After all, for the first time in a long while the words of a presidential candidate truly resonated with the people of Belarus.
If the last few months were any indication, it’s no easy task opposing Belarus’ strongman, Lukashenko. In Russia’s backyard, being a part of the opposition is tantamount to committing a crime. On the 6th of May, very close to the election date, Svetlana’s blogger husband, Sergey Tikhanovsky was arrested. Although accused of colluding with Russian mercenaries, Tikhanovsky’s arrest was widely perceived to be a typical Lukashenko-style response to the blogger’s growing popularity among Belarusians in the run-up to the elections. This became the first of many incidents that triggered the public outrage against Lukashenko’s government.
But what really turned Belarus’ political system on its head was Svetlana’s unexpected rise - from being a political novice to becoming the biggest challenge to the leadership. Svetlana was not only seen as a leader who reignited a revolutionary movement against authoritarianism, but also as someone who inspired women to lead the protests, and the people of Belarus to never back off from their fight for fair elections. The threats to her family coupled with her husband’s arrest created a feeling of injustice that was felt ever more personally by the people of the country. Hence, when the election results claimed an overwhelming majority for Lukashenko, the people of Belarus decided put an end to his dictatorship once and for all.
The nature of opposition presented by Svetlana is unprecedented in many ways. Her campaign gained traction not merely because of the circumstances due to which it emerged. It was also because she was able to present a united opposition by teaming up with two more women - Maria Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala. Prior to their decision to contest, the three male candidates, Siarhei Tsikhanouski (Svetlana’s husband), Valery Tsepkalo (Veranika’s husband) and Viktar Babaryka whose campaign Maria Kalesnikava was heading, were coerced into withdrawing from the presidential elections. While Tsepkalo was forced to leave the country, Babaryka and Tsikhanouski were put behind bars. These incidents brought the three women together. In an interview with Polityka, Maria Kalesnikava revealed that it took them merely 15 minutes to form a unified team. (Sierakowski, 2020) Although they represented different campaigns, they shared the same principles and goals including freedom for political prisoners and free and fair elections.
If the strength of the opposition came from their unity, the success of their campaigns were largely a result of their vision for Belarus. As the country was hanging over an economic abyss, battling a deadly pandemic, Lukashenko was busy detaining opposition leaders and dismissing the virus as a psychosis. Apart from having vodka and saunas to keep the virus at bay, Lukashenko had no concrete plans to save his country. Svetlana, in stark contrast to her competitor, addressed the multiple crises that her country was going through. Her campaign slogan, “a country to live in” hit the nail on the head. (Belarus, 2020)
As the cornerstone of her vision for Belarus, Svetlana advocated for free and fair elections with independent voting and a fair platform for multiple political candidates to contest. In a way, she not only convinced the people that their right to vote was one worth exercising, but also reminded them that each of their votes had a unique value, which when added together could redefine the future of Belarus. For Belarus, 26 years of frequent political imprisonments, shaky foreign relations and tight control by a single President drained the country of all its optimism. Against such a backdrop, Svetlana’s speeches were a beacon of hope.
She went on to address issues pertaining to employment, health and education as well. For a country that has for long sustained itself on energy subsidies from Russia, the promise of local jobs, better living standards and unhindered growth of small enterprises was exactly what the people needed to hear. Svetlana also vowed to improve the quality of health care and education. She further advocated a foreign policy built on the principle of peaceful and equal relations with other countries. (Belarus, 2020)
The opposition under Svetlana also sparked other important changes, most noticeably women standing at the forefront of Belarus’ largest movement. The protests staged by the female demonstrators were not just expressions of solidarity against the state of politics in the country but also a show of anger towards Belarus’ patriarchal society.
The female demonstrators drew their inspiration from the women-led opposition. The fact that they defied the gender stereotypes and displayed unshakable tenacity in the face of threats, discrimination and insults gave immense strength to the women in Belarus. Svetlana herself wears many hats: she is an opposition leader, a former English translator and teacher and the mother of two. Her resoluteness despite the lack of political experience and Lukashenko’s constant disparagement inspired several women to lead the fight.
When Svetlana announced her bid for presidency, Lukashenko remarked that the “society is not mature enough to vote for a woman”. (Makhovsky, 2020) He labelled her as a “poor thing” who would be unable to shoulder the weight of presidency. By employing such a misogynistic rhetoric, he was hoping to portray them as incapable of leading the nation. Contrary to Lukashenko’s expectations, it was his very underestimation of the opposition that bolstered Svetlana’s candidacy. Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, Marie Struthers, explained the tactics used by Lukashenko’s government against politically active women:
“They [Belarusian authorities] are deliberately targeting women involved in politics or female family members of political activists, including with open discrimination and threats of sexual violence,”. (election, 2020)
When questioned about the kind of help she sought from the West, Svetlana replied that all she could ask for now was verbal support. Svetlana’s stance on western intervention in Belarus’ uprisings underscores the organic transition of small street protests to a nation-wide movement that is held together by a strong anti-government sentiment. She said that, “The Belarusian people have a responsibility for what’s going on. We think that we have to solve this problem by ourselves.” (Ridgwell, 2020) By describing the current developments as a responsibility of the Belarusians, Svetlana captures what underlies most grassroots movements – the local people’s knowledge about their country’s socio-political system, the different sections of the population and their varying concerns.
Most importantly, it tests the resilience of protestors – how long they can weather the arrests, tortures and police brutality enabled by the government. The longer they can sustain without any external assistance, the stronger the message they can send to the people in power. In Svetlana’s case, she has also been able to channelize the collective disillusionment of people, including the ones who have hitherto refrained from voicing their opinions against the leadership. This was apparent when the state’s use of repressive tactics provoked Lukashenko’s loyalists such as factory workers and state enterprises into joining the protests.
Furthermore, how far the West can go in supporting the protesters is highly debatable. But if it oversteps its boundaries, it risks turning a domestic uprising against the government into a full-blown conflict between the West and Russia. Neither should the people’s protests be overshadowed by a US-Russia confrontation nor should Belarus be put in a situation where it would have to choose between the US and Russia.
Svetlana further clarified,
“If it happens that we will need one day the help of other countries, help in organizing this, maybe mediation or negotiation, of course any country that would like to help us with this question is invited”. (Ridgwell, 2020)
Currently, Svetlana is in Lithuania, where she fled to for safety reasons a day after the elections. Despite that, her team informed that she continues to coordinate protests and events and communicate with world leaders through social media. Svetlana is also seen urging the people of Belarus to stage their protests peacefully through her frequent videos messages across various social media handles.
Meanwhile, the opposition back in Belarus is exploring new ways to force the president to step down. They have employed three strategies apart from the routine protests – persuading MPs to stop supporting Lukashenko, filing mass resignations from government-controlled trade unions and mounting financial boycotts. (Kuznetsov, 2020) On September 4th, Svetlana pushed for the United Nations to step in and address the excessive use of force and mass arrests of protestors in Belarus. (violence, 2020)
The opposition led by Svetlana, Maria and Veranika was successful in bringing people to the streets. They were instrumental in getting them to self-organise protests even in the absence of a leader. However, the success of the movement depends on two key aspects. One, while they continue to stage large-scale protests, they must constantly look for alternate ways to pressurize Lukashenko. This is particularly important for the movement to maintain its momentum. Second, with Svetlana coordinating from Lithuania, the protestors should be able to carry forward the spirit of the movement till the very end. So far, the protestors have fought relentlessly by continuing to gather in large numbers. But so has Lukashenko through soviet-style political repression.
Belarus, E. p. (2020). Program. Retrieved from Svetlana Tihanovskaya: https://tsikhanouskaya2020.by/moya_programma/
election, B. M. (2020, July 17). News. Retrieved from Amnesty International: Belarus: Misogyny and discrimination fuels vicious campaign against activists ahead of election
Kuznetsov, S. (2020, September 6). Belarusian opposition broadens tactics in bid to unseat Lukashenko. Retrieved from Politico: https://www.politico.eu/article/belarus-opposition-switches-tactics-in-its-bid-to-unseat-alexander-lukashenko/
Makhovsky, A. (2020, July 22). Dismissed as 'poor things', three women try to unseat male president of Belarus. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belarus-election-opposition/dismissed-as-poor-things-three-women-try-to-unseat-male-president-of-belarus-idUSKCN24N1PT
Ridgwell, H. (2020, September 1). Belarus Opposition Leader Rejects Western Help. Retrieved from Voice of America: https://www.voanews.com/europe/belarus-opposition-leader-rejects-western-help
Sierakowski, S. (2020, August 9). Maria Kolesnikova: The women's revolution surprised Lukashenka. Retrieved from Polityka: https://www.polityka.pl/tygodnikpolityka/swiat/1966820,1,maria-kolesnikowa-rewolucja-kobiet-zaskoczyla-lukaszenke.read
violence, B. T. (2020, September 4). News. Retrieved from BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54024272
This article is part of our Special Report on the crisis in Belarus. You can view the complete catalog of articles on this subject here.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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The author is a Project Assistant at the Center for Policy Research, India.