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The Right to Dignity: A Feminist Revolution in Europe’s Last Dictatorship

On Wednesday, September 9, Marta Shcharbakova spent the night staring at the four walls of her cell inside of Akrescina prison in Belarus. 

“I knew it was dangerous before I went to the protest,” she told The Politic, “but someone had to go.”

Experiences like this one are not uncommon in Belarus, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship.” When President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected to his sixth term in office on August 9 of this year, it incited a wave of protests across the nation. Shcharbakova is one of thousands of Belarussians who have taken to the streets to demand the end of Lukashenko’s 26-year regime. 

For Shcharbakova, who has been actively involved in protests against the regime for the last seven years, this revolution has been a long time coming. Ulyana Schkel, a friend and classmate of Shcharbakova’s, described how “as soon as the protests started, [Shcharbakova] was like, ‘I have to be there. I have to be in that space because that’s what we were fighting for our entire life.” 

The two of them were studying abroad together at Bennington College in Bennington, VT until Shcharbakova left for Belarus midway through her studies to join the protests.

Now back with her mother and sister at home, Shcharbakova echoes this sentiment. 

“I don’t see how I could forgive myself if I stayed away. My heart was lighter in jail than it was in the safety of the United States,” she admitted. Shcharbakova now only hopes for a successful trial, explaining, “If I don’t get bail, I might have to miss even more classes.” 

Shcharbakova is not alone in her courage. Every weekend since the elections, protesters have flooded the streets of Minsk chanting for the resignation of Lukashenko—or “the cockroach,” as they call him—and demanding their right to free and fair elections. The government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic has only fueled protesters’ fire. Despite more than 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees and at least seven deaths in the two months since the election, Belarussians across the country have sparked a democratic revolution that has yet to reach its crescendo.

***

Democracy, however, will not be achieved easily. For almost as long as Belarus has existed as a nation, it has been under Russian rule, whether formally or informally.  From 1795 to 1918, Belarus was a part of the Russian empire, and after a brief stint of independence during World War I, it was quickly absorbed into the Soviet Union and remained a republic of the USSR until 1991. Independent Belarus will only celebrate its 30th birthday next year, and Lukashenko—a dictator sympathetic to Russia—has ruled for the last 26 of those years. 

Born into a poor family in 1954, Lukashenko served in the Soviety military, later joined the ranks of the Communist Party, and was eventually promoted to deputy chairman of the collective farms. Lukashenko is a product of Soviet Union ideology, and citizens note that his policies reflect that. 

“I’m not sure to what extent Lukashenko even considers himself Belarussian,” said Orel Bellinson, a Ph.D. student of European and Russian history at Yale University, in an interview with The Politic. Schekl’s nonchalance in questioning Lukashenko’s loyalties—citing his “mediocre” command over the Belarussian language—belies widespread discontent among citizens.

Given the dictator’s profound ties to the USSR, few were surprised that one of his first moves after his election in 1994 was to propose a union of the Slavic states between Russia and Belarus, a goal he eventually achieved in 1999. And in May 1995, he issued a referendum declaring Russian an official language of Belarus and replacing the country’s flag with one that bore Soviet colors instead. 

Lukashenko’s domestic policy of Russification has transformed Belarus over the past two decades.

“Only six percent of Belarussians speak Belarusian,” Schkel said. Her entire family now only speaks Russian. Aggressive Russification both during the Russian empire and the USSR combined with the regime’s preference for Russian in official settings has made it difficult for Belarusian to take hold even post-independence. 

“Russian is the language of government organizations and schools. We have incredible Belarusian poetry, we have beautiful songs, and all of that has been shoved under the carpet.” According to Schkel, Belarusian has been relegated to the language of counter-culture and political opposition. To speak Belarusian has now become “a political act.”

Centuries of foreign rule have made it very difficult for Belarussians to develop a shared national identity. If they speak Russian, share in Russian history, and are culturally homogenous, what makes Belarus a nation-state in its own right? 

This is a question Bellinson ponders. These protests, he believes, are really a cry for independence. In his eyes, this is Belarus’ real chance to leave the Soviet Union behind. 

***

A citizen-led revolution demanding both democracy and independence was long overdue.

Dr. Aliaksei Kazharski, a Belarussian political scientist currently based in Slovenia, emphasized the grassroots nature of these mass protests. 

“The protests are not led by the traditional opposition leaders or by the new opposition leaders that have emerged after this election,” he explained in an interview with The Politic. “Instead, they are coordinated through Telegram, a social media messaging app.”

For a revolution of this scale, a lack of organized leadership is uncommon. 

Lukashenko has jailed or exiled the three female leaders at the forefront of this movement—Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tespkalo, and Maria Kolesnikova. Yet as Tikhanovskaya herself asserts to the local press, “we are only symbols.” The decentralized essence of these protests has made it incredibly difficult for the regime to quell the revolution from the top down.

This kind of organizational structure is only possible due to the recent visibility of modern technology. The rise of social media has undermined the regime’s long-held monopoly over information, and deprived of this classic authoritarian tool, Lukashenko’s regime has finally begun to show some cracks. 

Angelina Makretsova, a first-year student at the University of Richmond studying remotely in Belarus, explained that social media has played a crucial role as an alternate source of information for everyday Belarussians, who previously could only turn to state-run television propaganda for news. 

“Before, when [Lukashenko] would kill the opposition leader, no one would know. But now, whatever happens, we know straight away,” Makretsova said in an interview with The Politic. “And this is why the anger piles up, because we saw what happened to our people in detention centers. How they were raped with police batons, how severely beaten they were, how they were dying in there.” 

After watching something like that, “you cannot stop protesting,” said Makretsova.

For this newfound transparency, Belarussians perhaps have COVID-19 to thank. The virus has compelled more than just teenagers to turn to social media. Sławomir Sierakowski, the founder of Polish left-wing intellectual movement Krytyka Polityczna  and a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, described that the pandemic, “which Lukashenko completely bungled,” sowed distrust in governmental competence. As a result, people turned away from state or Russian newspapers and began relying on social media for less censored news sources.

“At first, [Lukashenko] said that [COVID-19] did not exist. There was no lockdown in Belarus, and little of anything that could pass for state policy regarding the virus,” Sierakowski said. When people began to die, Lukashenko ordered news outlets to hide the grim statistics. He told his people to simply “drink vodka” and “work in the fields.” 

COVID-19 was more than just a catalyst for the replacement of state media with alternative news sources: It also provided an opportunity to expose the regime’s corruption in its entirety. 

When Lukashenko shirked his responsibilities, Belarussians had to step up themselves. According to Sierakowski, “citizens began banding together to buy masks and equipment, to help the sick, and to assist medical personnel.”

Lukashenko’s hands-off approach to the pandemic meant that the virus spread rapidly, infecting more than 60,000 Belarussians, an official statistic that likely underestimated the real number of infections. If the dictator had reached somewhat of an “equilibrium,” as Bellinson puts it, in his 26-year regime, this betrayal of the social contract—his refusal to provide basic healthcare necessities—had broken it. 

For Shcharbakova, this was when any semblance of credibility the regime had left was lost. People “really saw all those ambulances and all those dead bodies,” she said. “You can’t make another narrative about what is happening before you. That was eye-opening for many people.” 

As Sierakowski put it, “the regime lost ground, and civil society gained it.”

Fast forward to the August elections and, for the first time, there were viable opposition candidates and an informed civil society ready for change. The impact of the coronavirus had forced even ordinary Belarussians to confront the failures of their government. 

“People were tired,” said Scharbakova. Had Lukashenko recognized this, explained Bellinson, he perhaps would not have been so indifferent to his people’s concerns and disrespectful towards an election that had already inspired popular enthusiasm across the country.

“What was so upsetting about this time is not even that Lukashenko stole the election,” because it was obvious that he would, Bellinson said. “But the way he so cynically did so broke all hell loose.” 

According to official statistics from the government, Lukashenko received 80 percent of the votes, while only 6 percent went to the primary opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and the remaining 14 percent chose not to vote. 

“It would have been different,” Orel believes, “if Lukashenko had at least admitted that it was a close fight. Instead, he made it look like more people chose not to vote than vote for [Tikhanovskaya], which was obviously wrong.” 

For Belarussians, this blatant lie was enough indication that Lukashenko did not even acknowledge the humanity of his people. And so began a revolution of dignity, or hidnist, as the Ukrainians call it. 

***

Marci Shore, Yale professor and author of The Ukranian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution, described the protests as “an explosion of civil society.” In written correspondence with The Politic, she painted this revolution as “a magical moment of solidarity.” 

“Strangers find another on the street, help one another, people can count on another,” she continued. “It is a sudden sense of not only empowerment, where ordinary people realize they can do a lot by organizing themselves, but also of care for one another.”

“Magical” is indeed the right word to describe these protests; not only have they remained consistently peaceful in the face of violent government crackdowns, but many see a certain beauty in their methods. 

The first notable characteristic of the protests is that they are primarily female-driven. Tikhanovskaya, Tespkalo, and Kolesnikova stepped in to lead the presidential campaign and the activist movement when their own husbands were targeted and imprisoned by the regime. Further, protestors have been organizing women’s marches every Saturday, where wives, daughters, and sisters take to the streets to protest the regime’s use of violence against protesters. From the top down, this is truly a feminist revolution and, according to Shore, the first of its kind in Europe.

Makretsova, who attended the women’s marches with her mother, described “huge numbers of women wearing white and with flowers all across the city.” These all-female marches were originally launched to draw attention to the regime’s unlawful detentions and police brutality, especially in the first few days after the election, a time now referred to as the “wave of terror.” Now they have morphed into weekly displays of solidarity, acting as a stark contrast to Lukashenko’s brutality. 

Shcharbakova explained that Lukashenko’s “underestimation of women” made them the ideal protesters. Gender roles in Belarus are so deeply ingrained that although police officers will detain men, “it is understood that you do not touch a woman,” Scharbakova pointed out. 

Illustrating an image of social cohesion, she continued, “women support men by coming to protest for them and men support women. They give them a ride, take them home, and bring them food and water.” 

This mutual solidarity has transformed the nation, Kazharski explained. “A new civil society is being born in Belarus,” he said. “People go outside, they cook, they share food, they listen to music, and organize.” 

For Kazharski, another “magical” characteristic of the protests is the phenomenon of “aesthetic resistance.” The red and white colors of the original independent Belarussian flag have become a symbol of opposition to Lukashenko, present everywhere from parades of women marching for peace to the clothing choices of everyday Belarussians. Murals and artwork dot the city in these very same colors, and women have even begun to hang up their underwear in alternating patterns of red and white. 

While Lukashenko’s henchmen have been tasked with “fighting the flag,” there is only so much they can do to police a clothesline. In transforming the urban landscape this way, Belarussians have won an aesthetic hegemony against Lukashenko. 

The protests tell a “magical” tale of the Belarussian spirit. But some still fear the impending geopolitical consequences of this revolution.

***

Russia’s importance to Belarus’ history, coupled with Lukashenko’s affinity for the country, elevates the two nations’ relationship beyond that of traditional allies. In an interview with The Politic, Dr. Kazharski characterised the rapport as a “soap opera that has been playing between Minsk and Moscow for decades.” 

This dynamic has complicated the question of Russian interference in the escalating revolution. 

Putin is, at best, a reluctant supporter of Lukashenko, who has more than once “gotten on his nerves,” according to Kazharski. But his dislike for Lukashenko pales in comparison to his phobia of democratic revolutions and the possibility of an European Union or NATO-allied state in his backyard. Putin needs Belarus to act as a barrier to prevent NATO troops on his border, pushing him to continuously prop up the regime. However, says Kazharski, “I don’t think Moscow is prepared to pay Lukashenko’s bills indefinitely.” 

Sierakowski and many of the world’s experts in the region agree. Belarus is certain to be an expensive project, and allying with the nation could potentially incite the wrath of both the E.U. and the United States.

Still, despite clear potential for foreign intervention and the power play between the U.S., Russia, and the E.U. to influence these protests, the fate of this revolution will ultimately be determined by the Belarussian people and their leader. 

Even without Moscow’s continued support, Lukashenko is unlikely to step down. On September 23, in a ceremony only announced after it had already taken place, Lukashenko was secretly inaugurated as president. 

The protesters, however, have not given up. Both in physical demonstrations on the streets and through the magical aesthetic transformation of Belarussian society, the revolution continues. Each time the regime has flexed its muscles in a show of violence and power, Belarussians have responded with even more peaceful protests—a testament to the incredible resilience of humanity and the power of collective action. It is in the flags hanging from apartment windows and the stripes of red and white on crosswalks and doorways that this revolution lives on. 

“There are more of us, and we will not stop fighting,” their graffiti art seems to say.