September 1, 2020
The 2020 presidential election campaign in Belarus was a dramatic one. Aliaksandr Lukashenka, known as “Europe’s last dictator”, has been in power since 1994 and planned to be re-elected for the sixth time. Yet this year he has found himself faced with a lack of support from the majority of the population and a deep crisis of legitimacy.
Over the past three months, Belarusians’ mass civic mobilization against the regime has grown dramatically. It has reached an unprecedented level, dwarfing smaller protests in 1996, 2006, 2010-2011 and 2017. Citizens have expressed their views through diverse forms of peaceful manifestations: singing, playing music, clapping, walking, biking, wearing white bracelets and carrying white and red striped flags, and gathering in public spaces in support of opposition candidates (both those who were registered for the election and those who had been disqualified).
9 August, the day of the election, might have been a day of peaceful and legal transition of power, but instead it marked the start of a bloody reign of terror, unleashed on the people of Belarus by the illegitimate and self-declared “president”. The dictator is trying to preserve his regime at any cost and by all available means, including violence and fraud. His sabre-rattling was on display for the world to see last Sunday, when he and his son Nikolai (15 years old) appeared in military uniform wielding machine guns, after participants in the day’s peaceful rally had dispersed.
But heightened repressive measures against political opponents and ordinary people did not have the effect Lukashenka hoped for. On the contrary, these measures mobilized even those who had never been politically engaged before. Now, millions of Belarusians are taking part in mass rallies in cities and towns across the country, protesting electoral fraud, the illegitimate president and the brutal violence being inflicted by the state. The entire country is shouting at Lukashenka: Step down!
People around the world are closely following events in Belarus, wondering where this spirited protest came from, this determination to persist, this striving for non-violent change and such an incredible level of solidarity and mutual support?
The “walls” of regime would have collapsed eventually, due to the pressures of economic and political processes in post-Soviet Belarus that have accumulated over the years. But why is all this happening now?
There are many reasons. In this text I will try to analyse just one, but to my mind key, factor that explains the specificity of the current electoral campaign and the present moment.
The most distinctive feature of the 2020 electoral campaign is its “womanly face”. At first this was the face of “Eva”, a painting by the French Jewish modernist artist Chaim Soutine, who came from Belarus. When Viktar Babaryka, the former chief executive of Belgazprombank, whom Lukashenko feared as his main opponent, was detained on trumped-up charges, the art collection that belonged to his bank, including Soutine’s “Eva”, was also “arrested” and barred from public display. Silent yet adamant, “Eva” has become an iconic symbol of the mass protests, solidarity and hope for Belarusians, while the peaceful “uprising of the masses” soon got its name – “Evalution” (#евалюция).
“Eva” was the woman who first rallied Belarusians around the world in their fight against Lukashenka’s police regime, but the true Evalution began back on 16 July, at that historic moment when real women appeared on the political scene. A staggering image of three women, a photo that was published together with the announcement that their three teams were strategically uniting around one candidate, immediately drew the world media’s attention to events in Belarus. These three women were Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia, an officially registered independent candidate who decided to run for president instead of her husband, who was arrested two months ago on trumped-up charges and is still in jail; Maria Kalesnikava, a musician and art manager who took responsibility for Viktar Babaryka’s presidential campaign when he and his son (his campaign manager) were arrested; and Veranika Tsapkala, an IT manager and the wife of disqualified candidate Valery Tsapkala, the former director of major tech center Hi-Tech Park, who had to leave the country because of threats to him personally and to their children.
This news instantly altered the political situation in the country. Having imprisoned or removed his main male rivals from the electoral campaign, the authoritarian leader found himself in a trap: now his struggle for power was against strong, independent and charismatic women, who got their chance to voice their disagreement with the incumbent regime instead of remaining silent in the shadows of the male candidates.
Lukashenka has repeatedly said that without women’s support, he would not have become president. Indeed, for quite a long time women have formed the core pillar of support for Belarusian authoritarianism. What changed so drastically in spring and summer 2020, so that that he can no longer rely on their loyalty?
Over the 26 years of his presidency, Lukashenka seems to have lost touch with reality. He missed the moment when a new generation has entered the political scene. Women of this generation live in a globalized, digital world; they share different values; they have a different vision of their career prospects and understanding of personal freedom. Even if they do not all consider themselves feminists, for the most part they reject the president’s primeval views on women’s place in society. They do not want to remain an appendage of a system that is alien to them and see their purpose not in “cooking borshch” (as Lidia Yermoshina, the self-perpetuating Head of the Central Election Committee, advised female political activists ten years ago), but in active participation in creating a different political reality, which will in turn foster their professional and personal self-realization.
In other words, the women of the new generation of voters are definitely not the incumbent president’s electorate. For them, the authoritarian leader is neither the guarantor of the constitution, nor the protector of their rights—quite the opposite. The three women who challenged Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s rule represent this new, emancipated, urban, educated, socially and culturally diverse Belarus. In defending their rights, Belarusian women are saying to the regime, “You don’t represent us! And you can’t even imagine who we are” (reminiscent of the claims of the participants of Occupy Wall Street in 2012).
For too long, women had no opportunity to take active part in political life. The classical public sphere was dominated by men and was shaped in the age of old media. The arrival of new technologies has considerably undermined the patriarchal norms that prevented women from participating in political life. Eighty percent of Belarusian women (16 to 72 years old) actively use the Internet; many voice their opinions through Twitter, vk, Youtube, Instagram, Facebook and other social media.
It should be also noted that in the course of this electoral campaign, the women’s triumvirate and their electorate relied heavily on new information technologies, especially the online platforms Golos (Voice), Zubr, Honest people, etc.: to organize meetings in different cities, to raise their campaigns’ visibility, to foster solidarity among ordinary people, and especially to expose electoral fraud.
One distinctive trait of Evalution is that the opposition candidates and their supporters consistently emphasize their intention to act scrupulously within the framework of legal procedures, in full compliance with the law. The contrast between the brutal violence inflicted by the state’s repressive apparatus and the manifest non-violent strategy of ordinary people who take to the streets peacefully is striking. It might seem naïve for young people, holding hands, anticipating an OMON (riot police) attack, to loudly chant “Militia – with the people!” or for women in white with flowers in their hair to form chains of solidarity on the streets of cities across the country after three dreadful days of state violence. But this is not a manifestation of weakness: it is an indicator of a new political culture. It is in line with protesters’ desire to reinstate the legal system and to act exclusively according to the law.
At every rally Maria Kalesnikava has called on protesters to “peck, peck and peck away at these authorities!” (долбить, долбить, и долбить эту власть)This exhortation means that citizens should undermine the viability and stability of this system precisely by their persistence in demanding that the regime comply with the law. Huge numbers of official complaints over violations of citizens’ constitutional rights make obvious the absurdity of a situation in which legal norms are trespassed right and left. Without these statements from thousands of Belarusian citizens, loyal officials would have continued to believe that any violation of the law in favour of the regime would justify their deeds. Here it should be noted that almost three weeks after the events of 9-12 August, not a single court case has been opened against the instigators of violent acts (when more than 600 petitions were filed with the courts).
The regime’s complete disregard for the law and the unrestricted power of the state’s repressive apparatus was clearer than ever before in the events that followed the election on 9 August. The authorities believed that they would get away with it once again. But Lukashenka and his milieu remained unaware of how significantly ordinary people’s legal literacy had improved in the course of the last two months: people prepared to defend their civil rights, they grasped the need to protect the Constitution and the value of the principle of separation of powers, they learned how to draw up petitions to the courts and how to demand that the authorities comply with the laws. Following the terror that was unleashed after Election Day, people have refused to make concessions to the regime, which is rooted in lawlessness. For the first time in many years, ministers and officials at all levels are forced to apologize to people, to give public explanations; they have started to think about what the consequences of breaking laws might be.
Meanwhile, Belarusians have started a campaign to revoke the mandates of the current deputies of the Belarusian parliament. This is a long way from happening, but the campaign fully conforms to the law, even when everyone knows all decisions are in the hands of the president’s power vertical. Still, the deputies will have to do something, or risk losing their mandates. Of all 110 deputies, only one has spoken out and petitioned to the court to prosecute those who carried out violence against the peaceful protesters. Others continue to pretend that nothing has happened and is still not happening now! (It seems they only watch state TV channels).
The old opposition considers the “women’s path” to freedom to be inconclusive and ineffective, convinced that the authoritarian system cannot be destroyed without organized street resistance. But these women have chosen a different strategy; they see their task in laying the groundwork among different social groups for future democratic changes, in such a way that everyone would see that they can be leading participants in political and societal decision-making. They have brought together atomized individuals, forming a community that needs to liberate itself from the dictatorship.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia’s electoral campaign was extraordinarily bright, colourful and creative; it offered people an atmosphere of celebration and joy that has returned in recent days, despite the grief and fear. On 13 August, thousands of women dressed in white, holding flowers, came out to the streets and gave hope to people who were growing discouraged and frightened, mobilizing the millions of citizens who now gather at political rallies and declare strikes. Svetlana Alexievich, the only Belarusian to have received the Nobel Prize in Literature (2015), said recently: “Women have realized that they can and should do something, and they will tell their children: we did everything we could.” 
In his pre-election speech to the National Assembly, Lukashenko said: “Belarus is my beloved. And you don’t let a beloved get away” ([Беларусь] любимая. А любимую не отдают.) Many Belarusian women heard this not as a declaration of love, but as a rapist’s threat to his victim. Indeed, the whole country has been held hostage by the dictator. But Belarusian women have made the dictator understand that they take issue with what he is doing, and that he cannot any longer ignore their will for change. Their response to the regime: Love cannot be mandated. Go away!
We do not know what will happen in the days, weeks and months to come, but one thing is certain: we are witnessing the end of Lukashenko’s regime and the approaching collapse of the system of violence and repression that he built. Belarus has changed forever. These changes are irreversible. The time for Evalution has come.
Almira Ousmanova – feminist scholar and philosopher, Professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Head of the Laboratory for Studies of Visual Culture and Contemporary Art at the European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania).
 From May through July 2020, police arrested more than 1500 people. The detentions took place even on Election Day at polling stations. The courts sentenced hundreds of people to detention for up to 15 days, with some sentenced to longer terms. The arrests continued almost every day. But from 9 August, over the course of just three days nearly 7000 people were detained, brutally beaten and tortured at the detention centers. Many of them had not participated in the rallies, but were simply returning home, going for a walk with their children or pets, biking or shopping. The scale of violence has been unprecedented. Some people have still not been found.