The Belarusian President’s biggest fears : democracy and women
Updated: Jan 7
This year, I spent quite a lot of time keeping up with presidential elections in Poland, Belarus, and more recently, in Myanmar and Tanzania, all of which have been described as being flawed. Watching the protests and fight of Belarusians for a fair election reminded me of a VICE documentary I watched back in 2017. That video was called “Europe’s last dictatorship”, and exposed how President Alexander Lukashenko utilises internet surveillance and censorship to control the state (VICE, 2017). The video was filmed after the last Belarusian elections in 2015, after Lukashenko won the elections with a supermajority, and marked 22 years in power. He is therefore, the only president to have ruled Belarus. It was interesting to remember that video and see how little things had changed in Belarus. Back then, Lukashenko was already infamously coined as “Europe’s last dictator”, and the 2020 elections reinforced that title. Seeing the outcome of those elections, the protests and outrage that it caused, put international spotlight on Belarus and undermined the entire democratic and political system of the country. For this review, I want to explore the elections in Belarus, the opposition of Svetlana Tikhanoskaya, power dynamics and the resistance to women becoming political figures. .
Whilst VICE may not be the most academic source, their reports and videos often expose the political events from the perception of the people. I turned to VICE as I felt that they showed raw images that news outlets in a state would avoid sharing. Belarus has a history with flawed elections and authoritarianism, and the people can no longer stand it. In 2010, Belarusians protested against their authoritarian government after another flawed election. 10 years later, in 2020, the same flawed elections are occurring and peaceful pro-democracy protests are turning into violent ones. The secret KGB Belarusian police still operates during the protests, leading to thousands of arrests. Lukashenko is censoring information by shutting down the internet in the country, and has invited Russian military tanks to inflict fear and intimidation (Hume, 2020). Russia’s interference has been received badly in Belarus, its presence during political unrest can be interpreted as an attempt to gain control over the state, as for Russia, it is about geopolitics and obtaining control of post-soviet states. Lukashenko’s pro-Russian rhetoric has challenged the Belarusians rights to self-determination, which has been a contributing factor to the demand of Lukashenko’s resignation.
But what about opposition leaders? What about other political parties in Belarus? Party politics is not as important as the leader itself in Belarus, or the political ideology expressed by that leader. Belaya Rusis, Lukashenko’s party was founded in 2007, is a centrist political party. The greatest symbol and figure of opposition in this election was Svetlana Tikhanoskaya, who led the Belarusian Democracy movement. Whilst Lukashenko claims to have won the election by over 80%, hidden data from the elections reveal that Tikhanoskaya won (Provost, Torrisi and Snip, 2020). Therefore, Lukashenko is wrongfully prolonging his presidency, which undermines the entire nature of democracy. Since then, many opposition leaders have been threatened into exile, or forcibly displaced, which is what happened to Tikhanoskaya. She has had to flee to Lithuania and has been branded an enemy of the state, under the pretense of threatening Belarusian national security and attempting to seize power (ibid).
Through thorough research, I kept asking myself the same questions. How is Lukashenko still in power? Why was there such a resistance to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya? Why does he perceive her as a threat to his power? Using Foucauldian notions of power, we can understand the politics of power, power dynamics and Lukashenko’s tenacious desire to remain in power. Foucault argues that power is relational. It is ubiquitous and cannot be possessed, just enforced (Foucault, 2000). In this case, Lukashenko is the figure exercising his power on the media, police forces and Belarusian population.
In addition, Foucault explains that power produces knowledge and meaning, influencing practice and shared notions of truth (Newswander, 2011). This presents the multifaceted aspects of power, as it can create knowledge and ideology, but can be used as a form of control. Through censorship, limited freedom of press and imposition of KGB forces, Lukashenko tries to coerce the population. However, the Belarusian population is conscious of the corrupt government. Whilst Lukashenko enforces power in practice, he no longer exerts power into constructing truth and knowledge, suggesting that power relations have changed. The Belarusian population is no longer oblivious or coerced, which is why they are manifesting for political change, and for a new president.
Whilst Foucault can be used to understand power relations and Lukashenko’s tenacious seize of power, his concept of power in feminist theory is reductionist, and needs to be reconstructed. Foucault explains that power reduces individuals to their docile bodies as they are subjected to power relations (Allen, 2016). In the context of patriarchal power, he does not discuss the ways in which women can resist or escape that patriarchal power.
Power is a central concept to many mainstream and critical theories in international relations.
The reconstruction of the conceptualisation of power in feminist framework is necessary to understand, but also to critique and analyse the unjust power relations in contemporary societies. I will be focusing on feminist ideas of empowerment by looking into third wave feminism and why power needs to be acknowledged from a feminist perspective. Through this analysis, we will understand why there is resistance to women being in power, and the importance of women in politics.
Third wave feminism greatly focuses on gender, race, imperialism and sexism, and recognises the intersectionality of oppression and inequality (ibid). It focuses on the voices and rights of women, transgender people, members of LGBTQ+, and all those suppressed by society that want to be empowered. Men are often seen as symbols and figures of leadership, whether it is at home, at work, or in the political sphere. The representation and presence of women in politics is important as they want to become leaders themselves, and be emancipated from traditional concepts of female roles.
Whilst there has been a growth of female political leaders or authoritative figures, it is known that certain genders, racial and lower social groups are often scarce in a governing body. The under-representation of women in politics is evident as only 21 out of 193 countries have women as head of the state or government (Vogelstein and Bro, 2020). The feminist perception of under representation comes from the patriarchal structures, present in both society and politics. Feminist critiques on social relations and power hierarchies help in our understanding of the impact of an absence of gender representation has, which is why there should be greater inclusion of women in government, as it is primordial in the construction of democracy (Watuka, 2017).
Furthemore, women should become figures of leadership as they have a myriad of essential skills that can impact political decision and policy-making (ibid). The presence of women in legislation has led to policies and law that correspond to the problems they face daily. Anti-discrimination, domestic violence and child support laws gives priority to families, women and other marginalised groups, as the welfare of women and children cannot be resolved without the right policies. This increases the trust in the democracy of the state and reduces voter apathy.
In Belarus, Tikhanovskaya has been the face, and symbol for the movement of democracy. Whilst the protests are pro-democracy and anti-government, the presence of women in the protests has also highlighted the increase in sexual abuse and rape cases in Belarus (Provost, Torrisi and Snip, 2020). A new movement within the protests has formed, called the “Women in White”, with the #She4Belarus, which is a movement in support of Tikhanoskaya for the struggle for democracy and for women’s rights in Belarus, which has gained support from countries worldwide (ibid). This showcases the central role that women should have in social inclusion and political processes.
Lukashenko continues to govern as he monopolises the mass media, internet and eliminates any threat to his power. How is the international system reacting to this? This year was the first time the ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) was strategically not invited to monitor the elections in Belarus, which is said to be the reason as to why the election results were manipulated. This suggests that Lukashenko was already planning to obstruct the elections to ensure his reign. However, I disagree with this as Belarus has a history in flawed elections, as stated previously. With or without the presence of impartial international actors, the elections have always been flawed in Belarus, and many other states around the world.
The EU council has imposed economic target sanctions on Belarus, by imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on individuals they have found to be responsible for the suppression and violence in protests (Hume, 2020). Whilst travel bans and frozen financial assets frozen may strain the economy and put pressure on Lukashenko to resign, it will not work. Economic sanctions were imposed on Belarus in 2010, but they were not successful or effective. Furthermore, the asset freeze did not target Lukashenko himself, thus, he feels no pressure from the EU council or international body to resign. These measures are not sufficient enough to stop flawed elections.
Lukashenko remains in power and the international body fails to recognise the corruption in the country and act accordingly. I believe that they should seize his power and allow Tikhanoskaya to return safely, rather than allow an autocratic-like regime that uses fear and intimidation to control the state and media to progress. The presence of Tikhanoskaya in Belarusian politics as president is vital to stop the violent protests and rigged elections. Moreover, she is an important figure to raise awareness of women's rights in Belarus, and to establish a reliable democratic system, with free elections and freedom of press.
Allen, Amy. (2016) ‘Feminist Perspectives on Power’, [online] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/feminist-power/ (Accessed 5 November 2020).
Foucault, M. (2000) Omnes et Singulatim: towards a critique of political reason, in: M. Foucault, Power: Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, Vol. 3, J. D. Faubian, trans. R. Hurley (eds.). New York: The New Press. pp. 298–325
Hume, T. (2020) ‘Europe’S Last Dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko Just Held A Secret Inauguration. [online] Vice.com. Available at: <https://www.vice.com/en/article/qj4ydm/alexander-lukashenko-secret-inauguration-belarus > (Accessed 5 November 2020).
Newswander, C. B. (2011) ‘Foucauldian Power and Schmittian Politics: The Craft of Constitution’, Administration & Society, 43(5), pp. 537–560. doi: 10.1177/0095399711412735. (Accessed 5 November 2020).
Provost, C., Torrisi, C., and Snip, I. (2020) How Women’S Role In Belarus Protests Captured Global Media Attention. [online] openDemocracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/how-womens-role-in-belarus-protests-captured-global-media-attention/ (Accessed 5 November 2020).
VICE (2017) Inside Belarus, Europe's Last Dictatorship. [video] Directed by VICE, Youtube. Available at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fc7yLOcmYTY
Vogelstein, R. and Bro, A. (2020) Women’S Power Index. [online] Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: https://www.cfr.org/article/womens-power-index (Accessed 5 November 2020).
Watuka, C. (2017) Resistance to Women’s Political Leadership: Problems and Advocated Solutions. Women United for Social, Economic & Total Empowerment, [online] pp.1-7. Available at: https://www.iknowpolitics.org/en/learn/knowledge-resources/resistance-women%E2%80%99s-political-leadership-problems-and-advocated-solutions (Accessed 5 November 2020).