“At first I didn’t think of getting rid of it [Alyaksandr Lukashenka] would take so long ”, Anastasia Kostyugova admits. She is a co-founder of the Women in White movement, a civic movement in Belarus that catalyzed the fraudulent 2020 presidential election in Belarus.
It has been more than a year since elections were held in Belarus that sparked a political crisis that threatened the legitimacy of the regime. Lukashenka, the longtime authoritarian leader, expected an easy win, but after severe economic mismanagement and the COVID crisis, the country rebelled when he tried to steal the race. For the first time women confronted the mustached misogynist and organized photogenic marches with thousands of women in white marching peacefully, holding flowers and smiling.
Lukashenka imprisoned his male candidates and made a grave assessment error by allowing Svitalana Tsikhanouskya, a resident mother of two and a former English teacher, to enroll. Lukashenka never thought that Belarusians would band together around a woman.
They did and they did. Tsikhanouskya and two other women became the face of the democratic movement that gripped the country and sparked the greatest political crisis Lukashenka has ever experienced.
On Saturdays in autumn 2020, from August to mid-November, women took to the streets in white. On Sundays the crowds were bigger and a mix of men, women and children. These were the first women-led marches. “It wasn’t a matter of course in the past,” says Kostyugova.
But then the security forces started extreme violence against women and put them in jail. In the past, women were not allowed to be beaten. Today only a few brave souls walk through the streets of Minsk with white umbrellas every two weeks.
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Kostyugova, a likable and energetic 29-year-old marketing specialist from Minsk, is in Washington on September 23rd to receive the Jeane Kirkpatrick Prize from the International Republication Institute. She also works in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskya, the opposition leader.
Kostyugova has no regrets, despite the high price she paid for her activism. “I lost my family. I lost my apartment. I still have my life and my freedom, and that’s more than enough, ”she says.
Kostyugova is one of hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who have fled their country since 2020. “My mother is in prison. I am in exile. I did not expect this. But without [this suffering], we did not understand the value of human rights and democracy, ”confirms Kostyugova.
Kostyugova is no ordinary PR specialist. She is the daughter of Valeria Kostyugova, a political analyst who imprisoned in June 2020 for interviews and Anatoly Pankovsky. Together, her parents have created some of the best analytical websites and publications on politics in the country.
Valeria was taken into custody in the middle of the night after an interview. She has been charged with conspiracy or other acts to conquer state power and face up to 12 years in prison. Lukashenka’s regime doesn’t mess around. You recently sentenced Opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova was imprisoned for eleven years.
Prior to the 2020 presidential election, Anastasia was an ordinary young professional working her way up in the marketing industry despite considering herself a feminist. “I’m a feminist, but you’re a freak in this country.” The F-word has a negative connotation for many in Belarus.
She quickly left Minsk in September 2020 after security services showed up at her work, home and her grandfather’s house. She was hiding in a friend’s apartment, but left Minsk immediately after these visits. There was no time to pack. Arriving at the Lithuanian border by car without a visa, she crossed three hours later on a 20-day humanitarian visa and began her life in exile.
Women in White has since shifted its efforts online. “It’s all underground now because [the situation] is very dangerous, ”she says. Ordinary people were arrested for simply wearing red, the color of the democratic movement.
The initiative targets women who support the regime. “They don’t know that there is anything better,” says Kostyugova with a smile. They want to reach judges and police wives. The initiative has roughly 20,000 subscribers, but it’s a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of women who participated in last year’s marches.
Kostyugova is baffled, and says efforts are focused on turning educational content about human rights, democracy, feminism (without the F-word), and domestic violence into engaging social media content.
This summer the regime practically shut down independent media outlets or forced them to redirect their political coverage to anodyne topics such as astrology and the weather.
Telegram, the once popular method of organizing democratic forces, is losing its audience. Instead, people, including ordinary factory workers, are switching to YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.
Kostyugova insists that despite the tiny crowd and the fact that the opposition leader is in exile, the democratic movement is not over yet. “This system cannot survive 10 years,” she says, arguing that the regime is running out of money. For example, police officers are entitled to vacate apartments from the government and funds are no longer sufficient for these apartments.
Kostyugova is not blind to the enormous challenges that lie ahead. Massive street protests are unlikely given the price the middle class paid last year; Thousands lost their businesses and moved abroad. When the regime looked fragile that summer, the factory workers never broke with the regime and Lukashenka was left sitting.
“He knows that everyone is fed up with him,” she says, but the question of who will come after him is harder to answer.
Analyst Katia Glod thinks that Russia will try to replace Lukashenka slowly and without formal annexation, and that time is on Moscow’s side. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka met five times in Moscow this year to discuss an integration agreement between the two countries, financial aid, military cooperation and constitutional reform. Putin wants an indulgent leader in Minsk, and Lukashenka is anything but that, and he’s short of money, and the fourth package of sanctions should start stabbing this winter. Lukashenka’s options could run out.
But for now the old farm boss is still in charge, even if he is no longer legitimate and widely despised. “It’s not about loyalty. It’s about fear, ”says Kostyugova.
Melinda Haring is Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. She tweeted @melindaharing.
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