Last Global Leadership Lab was named “Developing Self.” During one of the session Fellows supposed to prepare presentations about leaders from their home region. At this session I made a presentation about a few Belarusian women-leaders fighting for the freedom in Belarus and I want to share their stories with you below.

Brief introduction of Belarus

Belarus is a relatively small Post-Soviet republic in Eastern Europe, with 9.5 million people living there. The country is bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Belarus can be familiar to many of you because of tractors “Belarus,” large dump trucks BelAZ or city buses MAZ producing in the country. But among all Post-Soviet states, Belarus is also known due to its IT-industry. The most famous apps created by Belarusian IT-startups are Viber, the “World of Tanks” game, the Masquerade app bought by Facebook, and the map service “Maps.me.”

Why women in Belarus started fighting for freedom?

The main reason for the current protest movement in Belarus is Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus for the last 26 years and the last dictator in Europe.

The people of Belarus started protesting against him in December 2010 after the unfair Presidential election. That time Lukashenko’s initial rating was about 40%, and people protested mostly because of the unfair calculation of their votes. As officially, Lukashenko got 80% of all votes. However, after the election, Lukashenko arrested all independent and oppositional candidates (7 candidates in total) and violently broke up the demonstration of 60K protesters in Minsk.

In August 2020, another presidential election in Belarus was held. In the time of the pandemic, severe economic crisis, and failure of authority to fight against COVID-19, Lukashenko’s initial rating dropped down to 3% of followers.

At the same time, Lukashenko got powerful and popular opponents. Viktor Babaryka, the famous philanthropist and the CEO of the leading Belarusian bank, Valery Tsepkalo, the founder of the Belarusian IT-industry, and Sergey Tikhanovsky, the famous YouTube blogger, showing the real life in the country. I want to note that in Russia and Belarus, YouTube is more important than governmental TV with all the propaganda.

But as we know, Lukashenko can’t allow his opponents to participate in any political processes. That’s why Babaryka and Tikhanovsky were arrested, and Tsepkalo had to leave the country. What to do in a situation when all oppositional leaders are arrested even before the election? Women decided to take their places!

How did women become main opponents to Lukashenko in summer 2020?

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (the wife of Sergey Tikhanovsky), Veronika Tsepkalo (the wife of Valery Tsepkalo), and Maria Kolesnikova (a business partner of Viktor Babaryka) became new leaders of the protest movement in Belarus.

And here Lukashenko made his biggest mistake—he allowed Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to participate in the upcoming Presidential election, and the other two women decided to support Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in the election race.

Veronika Tsepkalo, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and Maria Kolesnikova

Why did Lukashenko allow Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to become a candidate for the presidential office? Because he’s a sexist, and he thought that all Belarusians are sharing his position. That what he said about Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and other women-leaders:

“There are many talented women, but our society is not ready to elect a woman as president. If we were to have a figurehead president who only welcomes and accompanies (visitors), then we would find a beautiful woman, and we’d elect her. That’s how our society is. In the same way, the U.S. is also not prepared to elect a female president, even such a professional as Mrs. Clinton.”

Alexander Lukashenko

But Lukashenko was wrong! Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova, and Veronika Tsepkalo became extremely popular in Belarus for a few weeks. Together with their teams, they gathered the most significant political rallies in all big cities throughout Belarus.

Finally, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya got access to national TV, where she said a compelling speech about the current situation. By the way, Lukashenko didn’t appear in debates. Moreover, he explained his reasons as he doesn’t have any topics to discuss with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. In his opinion, the only topic he can discuss with women is cooking.

Pre-election rally for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Minsk

Presidential elections in Belarus and what happened after them

According to the independent system of counting votes, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya got 80% of all votes instead of 10%, which Lukashenko got. However, official results were the opposite!

After the government announced the official results, people went to the street. For the first night, around 6K people were arrested, imprisoned, and violently tortured; some were killed or tortured to death. The Police and the military beat men and guys who went outside even if they went to work or grocery stores. What happened next?

Anti-Lukashenko protests after the presidential elections in August 2020

Women went to the street. Firstly, they wore white clothes, brought flowers, and stayed in lines holding each other’s hands all along the city. Then they organized massive marches with 100K participants. Moreover, women defended men by staying in front of the police and the military or even shielded guys so that they can’t be beaten. Women go out for marches till now, even if the police and the military have started to arrest them, abuse, and torture in prison.

Women’s march in Minsk

Other women-leaders appeared during the protests

During women’s marches in Belarus, new leaders appeared as well. For example, 73 year-old Nina Baginskaya, who became famous when she walked in the city center with a banned Belarusian flag and yelled at a soldier who tried to arrest her as “I’m walking in my city!” This month Italian Vogue published pictures and Nina’s story and called her a mother of Belarusian protest.

Sketch of Nina Baginskaya walking on the street with a flag of Belarusian protests

Or Svetlana Alexievich, a very famous person in Belarus and Nobel Literature Prize laureate, who supported Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and became a member of the Belarusian Opposition Council. Svetlana Alexievich was called by the police for explaining her participation in the Council. In the picture below, you can see Svetlana and European diplomats, who had to come to her place for a night to prevent her arrest, after the arrests of all Council’s members. A few days later, Svetlana Alexievich had to leave the country.

European diplomats at Svetlana Alexievich place protesting her from being arrested

What happened with other women-leaders?

 Veronika Tsepkalo and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had to leave the country as Lukashenko’s government endangered their children, and Maria Kolesnikova was arrested.

But before Maria Kolesnikova was arrested, she made a legendary action. Lukashenko’s government decided to move her out of the country by force. But Maria Kolesnikova rips up her passport on the border to stay in the country. After that, she was arrested and still staying in prison.

“To be honest, Lukashenko has done much more to develop feminism in Belarus than all feminists. I also consider myself a feminist, but he did better. When he began to say all this nonsense about women, he insulted and lost most of his voters.”

Maria Kolesnikova

To summarise, the new women-leaders in Belarus were successful in their movement against the current government in such a patriarchal country as Belarus because they were brave, united, open-minded, ready to work in a team, supportive to each other, and self-organized.

Drawing of Maria Kolesnikova with her riped-up passport