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In 'Patriarchal' Belarus, Three Women Push For A Change Of Power

Veranika Tsapkala, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and Maryya Kalesnikava at a July 19 rally in Minsk
Veranika Tsapkala, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and Maryya Kalesnikava at a July 19 rally in Minsk

Belarusian politics long has had a reputation as a place where few women make it to the top. But now, three women believe that they can remove long-term Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka from power by betting specifically on women voters.

On July 16, the campaigns of would-be presidential candidates Viktar Babaryka, a banker now in prison facing criminal charges, and Valer Tsapkala, a hi-tech entrepreneur and former ambassador to the United States, joined forces with registered presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of popular jailed blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski.

Women represent both the Babaryka and Tsapkala campaigns, forming, together with Tsikhanouskaya, a sort of triumvirate for taking on Lukashenka in Belarus’ August 9 presidential vote.

Babaryka is represented by his campaign coordinator, Maryya Kalesnikava, 38, a concert flute player trained in Germany and the art director for OK16, a cultural organization that the former Belgazprombank head “helped establish,” according to his biography.

Tsapkala’s wife, Veranika Tsapkala, represents his own campaign. She is a senior partner/development manager for the Microsoft Corporation in the Commonwealth of Independent States, of which Belarus is part.

Some analysts believe that this unexpected trio will bolster the morale and popular appeal of critics of Lukashenka, in power since 1994. But whether the three women can mobilize enough popular support for Tsikhanouskaya to pose a serious challenge to the 65-year-old Belarusian leader remains unclear.

None of the three has extensive experience in politics or has held elected office.

The Three Women Challenging Lukashenka In Belarus
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In response to the campaigns’ decision to join forces, Lukashenka, who already has asserted that Belarus will not be ruled by a woman, declared on July 16 that a revised constitution should make army service a criterion for the registration of any presidential candidate. Belarus has no mandatory military service for women.

“You understand what this says,” Veranika Tsapkala commented in a July 17 interview with Current Time. “It says that the current authorities, this time, already fear women as well.”

Lukashenka’s call for candidates to have done military service is an attempt “to exclude us from the political process,” agreed Kalesnikava.

“[I]n Belarus, 55 percent of the electorate are women,” she noted. “This is more than half. This means that our voice should be heard.”

On July 19, a massive crowd of supporters in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, heard exactly that. Tsikhanouskaya, Tsapkala, and Kalesnikava promised them that Belarus would hold repeat, “fair” national elections after the August 9 presidential vote. Calling on the government to release all political and “economic prisoners,” they urged Belarusians to head to the polls and to monitor the vote closely.

Belarus has never before elected a woman as president, although the upper house of the National Assembly, the Council of the Republic, is chaired by Natalya Kochanova, who insists that gender equality is a government priority. Women currently make up just over a third of the 110-member lower house of parliament and some 26 percent of the 64-seat Council of the Republic.

Lukashenka himself, however, has already stated that the Belarusian constitution does not function “under a woman.”

In their 2019 interim report for Belarus’ presidential election, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers reported that “patriarchal attitudes” are “a primary obstacle to women’s political participation.”

The World Bank’s 2018 World Values Survey found that “more than half of the population thinks that being at home with children is what women want most,” and that men make for more adept political leaders.

In their Current Time interview, Kalesnikava, and Tsapkala appeared to play on these stereotypes to target Lukashenka and boost their own candidate, Tsikhanouskaya.

Kalesnikava mocked Lukashenka for supposedly being afraid of “just a woman, Svyatlana,” while Tsapkala charged that he fears “a frail woman,” who is a mother of two children as well as the wife of a prisoner.

In Tsapkala’s words, the three women were compelled to bond together because “there are no men -- the strongest candidates cannot participate;” an apparent reference to Tsikhanouskaya's and Tsapkala's husbands and Babaryka, all of whose candidacies election officials refused to register.

“Consequently, the women of Belarus need to do something, need to unite because we understand that together we’re a force, together we’ll win,” Tsapkala continued. “Individually, we won’t be able to do anything.”

How exactly the trio will attempt to secure women voters’ support is not clear, however. As yet, Tsikhanouskaya appears to have no official website or social-media presence for her campaign.

For the 38-year-old candidate, though, the coalition seems to provide much-needed psychological support. A homemaker, she began her campaign only after the Central Election Commission this May rejected the initial candidacy registration documents for her husband, popular YouTube vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, an outspoken Lukashenka critic.

Amidst alleged threats to her family, she has acknowledged that she considered quitting more than once.

“I think I would have tried very much [to run for president solo], but I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t withdraw for various different reasons,” Tsikhanouskaya commented to Current Time. “Now I, of course, feel support from my colleagues. And I hope that, with their support, with their help, I’ll get through all this. We will prevail.”

Political analyst Valer Karbalevich, however, is skeptical. “Of course, it’s possible to criticize these girls,” Karbalevich said, referring to the three women, whom he described as already “famous politicians.”

However, he continued, “it’s possible to say that their unification gave hope to civil society that all is not yet lost, that the elections aren’t over, that it’s still possible to try to do something.”

But, he underlined, one basic problem remains: “It’s easy to unite the headquarters. But how do you unite their voters?”

Unlike YouTube vlogger Tsikhanouski, Babaryka and Tsapkala appear firmly entrenched in the Belarusian establishment.

Before running Russian energy giant Gazprom’s Belgazprombank in Belarus, Babaryka, 56, was a former international trade department head who studied at the Council of Ministers’ Academy of Public Administration.

Tsapkala, 55, formerly served as first deputy foreign affairs minister and ambassador to the U.S. under Lukashenka. He later became the president’s technology adviser and went on to set up Belarus’ Hi-Tech Park, with tax breaks for IT companies.

Babaryka and Tsapkala’s voters wanted “a rational choice” for president, emphasized Karbalevich, a senior expert at Minsk's Strategy think-tank. “They wanted to put effective managers in charge of running the state. But Svyatlana doesn’t look very much like this. “

Tsikhanouskaya, the mother of a 4-year-old and 10-year-old, has repeatedly stated that she has no political ambition apart from that of her vlogger husband. She previously worked as a translator and secretary.

Karbalevich, however, believes that the trio’s pledge to hold “new, democratic elections” if Tsikhanouskaya is elected is “the kind of rational choice that both Babaryka and Tsapkala’s voters would support.”

Artyom Shraibman, a political commentator for the news service, agreed, calling the pledge “interesting and, probably, the best possible move they can make.”

Yet, like other local observers, he does not necessarily believe that the pledge of new elections means that Tsikhanouskaya now has a strong chance to be elected.

“It’s another thing altogether, and something I can’t say, that this changes the balance of power in the country in some fundamental way,” Shraibman cautioned. “Lukashenka is not afraid of this [pledge] and will not run away from it.”

For now, said Karbalevich, Lukashenka still does not see Tsikhanouskaya as a rival who could pose a threat to his adding another term to his 26 years in power.

In Lukashenka’s thinking, he said, faced with a choice between “a housewife” or “a wise politician with a lot of political experience,” even Belarusians who are skeptical of his rule “will vote for him.”