âAt first I didn’t think I’d get rid of [Alyaksandr Lukashenka] would take so long, âadmits Anastasia Kostyugova. She is the 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 over a year since Belarus held an election that sparked a political crisis that threatened the legitimacy of the regime. Lukashenka, the longtime authoritarian leader, expected an easy victory, but after severe mismanagement of the economy and the COVID crisis, the country rebelled when he tried to steal the race. For the first time, women stood up to the mustached misogynist, organizing photogenic marches of thousands of women in white peacefully marching, holding flowers and smiling.
Lukashenka jailed his male suitors and made a serious error in judgment in allowing Svitalana Tsikhanouskya, a stay-at-home mother of two and a former English teacher, to register. Lukashenka never thought that Belarusians would rally around a woman.
They did, and they did. Tsikhanouskya and two other women became the face of the democratic movement that swept the country, triggering the biggest political crisis Lukashenka has ever known.
On Saturdays in fall 2020, from August to mid-November, women in white took to the streets. On Sunday the crowd was larger and made up of men, women and children. These are the first marches led by women. âIt wasn’t natural before,â says Kostyugova.
But then the security forces began to use extreme violence against the women and put them in jail. Historically, women were prohibited from beating. Today only a few brave souls walk the streets of Minsk with white umbrellas every two weeks or so.
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Kostyugova, a likeable and energetic 29-year-old marketer from Minsk, is in Washington to receive the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award from the International Republication Institute on September 23. She also works in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskya, the leader of the opposition.
Kostyugova has no regrets despite the high price she paid for her activism. âI lost my family. I lost my apartment. I still have my life and my freedom, and that’s more than enough, âshe said.
Kostyugova is one of hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who have fled their country since 2020. âMy mother is in prison. I am in exile. I did not expect that. But without [this suffering], we did not understand the value of human rights and democracy, âsays Kostyugova.
Kostyugova is no ordinary public relations specialist. She is the daughter of Valeria Kostyugova, a political analyst who was detained in June 2020 for giving interviews, and Anatoly Pankovsky. Together, his parents have produced some of the best analytical websites and political publications in the country.
Valeria was taken into custody in the middle of the night after giving an interview. She has been charged with conspiracy or other actions to seize state power and faces up to 12 years in prison. The Lukashenka regime is no joke. They recently sentenced the main opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova to 11 years in prison.
Prior to the 2020 presidential election, Anastasia was an ordinary young professional, rising through the ranks in the marketing industry, even though she considered herself a feminist. âI’m a feminist, but in this country you’re a monster. The word f has a negative connotation for many in Belarus.
She left Minsk quickly in September 2020 after security services showed up at her work, home and grandfather’s home. She had been 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 life in exile.
Women in White has since shifted its efforts online. “Everything is underground now because [the situation] is very dangerous, âshe said. Ordinary people have been detained for wearing red, the color of the democratic movement.
The initiative aims to target women who support the regime. âThey don’t know that something better exists,â Kostyugova says with a smile. They want to reach judges and police wives. The initiative has around 20,000 subscribers, but it is a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of women who took part in the marches last year.
Kostyugova is puzzled and said the effort is focused on creating educational content on human rights, democracy, feminism (not using the f-word) and domestic violence in interesting social media content. .
This summer, the regime virtually shut down independent media, or forced them to shift their political coverage to trivial topics like astrology and weather.
Telegram, the once popular method of organizing democratic forces, is losing its audience. Instead, people, including regular factory workers, are moving to YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.
Kostyugova insists that it is not over for the Democratic movement, despite the tiny crowds and the fact that the opposition leader lives in exile. âThis system cannot survive 10 years,â she says, arguing that the regime is strapped for cash. For example, the police are entitled to free government apartments, and there is no longer sufficient funds for these apartments.
Kostyugova is not unaware of the enormous challenges that lie ahead. Massive street protests are unlikely to happen again, given the price the middle class paid last year; thousands of people have lost their businesses and moved abroad. When the regime seemed fragile this summer, factory workers never broke with the regime, and Lukashenka stayed behind.
âHe knows everyone’s sick of him,â she says, but the question of who comes after him is harder to answer.
Analyst Katia Glod think that Russia will try to replace Lukashenka slowly, without formal annexation, and that time is on Moscow’s side. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka have met in Moscow five times this year to discuss an integration deal between the two countries, financial aid, military cooperation and constitutional reform. Putin wants a flexible leader in Minsk, and Lukashenka is anything but cash, and he’s strapped for cash too, and the fourth package of sanctions should start to weigh in this winter. Lukashenka’s options might run out.
But for now, the former farm boss is still in charge, even though he is no longer legitimate and widely despised. âIt’s not about loyalty. It’s a matter of fear, âsays Kostyugova.
Melinda Haring is the Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @melindaharing.
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The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation by promoting stability, democratic values ââand prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia to ballast.