by Maddie Dewhirst
Protests have engulfed Belarus – some having turnouts of hundreds of thousands of people – since the presidential election on Aug. 9, when incumbent Alexander Lukashenko declared victory, claiming to have received over 80 percent of the vote.
Dubbed by many as Europe’s longest-serving dictator, Lukashenko has led Belarus for the past 26 years, coming into national power with a populist message after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many suspect fraud in the latest election; the European Union did not recognize the official results, and a statement from the US State Department characterized the election as “not free and fair.”
The primary challenger to Lukashenko, and seen by many as the legitimate winner of the presidency, is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The 38-year-old began running after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky—a prominent critic of Lukashenko whom Amnesty International deemed a “prisoner of conscience”—was unable to run for the office himself after being arrested on what he claims are false charges. During the campaign, Tsikhanouskaya promised that, if elected, she would introduce democratic reforms, in addition to freeing all political prisoners and holding new elections in six months.
“Our women understood that they are leaders as well, and they don’t have to stay in their kitchens and can go and fight for their rights beside their men—and even in front of their men,” stated Tsikhanouskaya, who joined her campaign with those of Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo. The three women quickly became a symbol for dissent in the country.
Since the election, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania and Tsepkalo to Poland to keep their families safe. Security forces took Kolesnikova into custody, after which, she claims, they attempted to forcibly deport her either “alive or in bits.” According to witnesses, Kolesnikova tore up her passport at the Ukranian border to prevent her deportation. Police are currently detaining her in the capital and she is pressing charges against the security forces.
Sexism played a substantial role in the election, and with his male opponents barred from seeking office, many think Lukashenko underestimated the challenge the three women brought against him. When asked if he would debate Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko remarked “She’s just cooked a tasty cutlet, maybe fed the kids, and the cutlet smells nice. And now there’s supposed to be a debate about some issues. What are we talking about?” Additionally, he has referred to the trio of women as “three unhappy girls” and said that the burden of the presidency would cause a woman to “collapse, poor thing.”
Protests show no signs of subsiding, despite the violent crackdown by security forces who have detained thousands of protestors. Some of those released told media outlets of overcrowded cells, “organized beatings, and people kept for days without food and threatened with rape,” according to ABC News. People working in state media refused to go to work and workers at a tractor factory chanted, “Go away! Go away!” at Lukashenko during his recent visit.
Addressing the protests, Lukashenko stated: “My response to this – we held the elections and until you kill me, there won’t be any new elections.”
(Sources: NPR, Reuters, Guardian, Vox, BBC, NYT, Washington Post, ABC)