Like any beauty contest, Miss Belarus has strict requirements for would-be participants. But this year, the government-run pageant apparently added a new criterion to its list: no past involvement in protests against the rule of Belarus’ Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The biennial pageant’s September 10 final will feature “true Belarusians,” a category that does not include “those who live on momentary emotions and line up in rows of protesters with vulgar placards in their hands,” specified Elena Lobach, an executive with pageant co-organizer ONT, a state-run TV channel, on June 18.
ONT and its pageant partners, the Ministry of Culture and National School of Beauty, will screen potential finalists -- including their Instagram stories, parents, and relatives -- “particularly carefully” to avoid surprises, Lobach told the Belarusian presidential administration’s SP.by news portal.
One semi-surprise occurred in November 2020, when a 2008 Miss Belarus critical of Lukashenka, Volha Khizhynkova, was sentenced to 42 days in jail for participating in an unsanctioned November 8 protest in Minsk against his official reelection as president.
State-owned stores subsequently placed stickers over Khizhynkova’s face on packets of Conte hosiery, a Belarusian brand she promoted. She already had lost her teaching job at the National School of Beauty, a government-run modeling agency and “educational institution” that trains professional models.
Set up in 1998, Miss Belarus, in which 30 women will participate this year, describes itself as “the pride and property of the nation.” But, above all, it is the “pride and property” of the 66-year-old Lukashenka, who issued the 1996 presidential decree that established the country’s National School of Beauty.
Luakshenka, who first became president in 1994, has attended almost every one of the pageant’s finals. Pageant winners and former contestants, whom Lukashenka has called “my beauties,” often become employees in the presidential protocol service, charged with meeting high-profile guests or accompanying Lukashenka on official trips abroad, the investigative Russian news site Proyekt and Belarusian-language TV channel Belsat reported in 2020.
Beauty, Lukashenka informed presidential administration academy students in 2019, is “really a weapon.”
“Not that I use it, but if you have something from Belarus to show people, then do it,” he advised.
But finding women willing to become “a weapon” in Lukashenka’s service has apparently become more difficult after the start of brutal crackdowns on opposition to his official August 2020 reelection that have sparked both sanctions and condemnations from the international community.
Women are among those individuals who claim they were humiliated, beaten, or threatened with rape by prison guards in detention centers after police raids on unsanctioned protests.
Denouncing Miss Belarus for turning women into “a symbolic trophy” for male jurors, feminists within the Belarusian opposition’s National Coordination Council urged women to boycott the pageant.
“Battered women's bodies and women subjected to discrimination and torture in prisons and [penal] colonies are hardly ‘worthy’ of the title Miss Belarus,” the group posted on Facebook. Such women are “our real heroines,” it stated.
This spring, independent Belarusian news outlets reported a record-low turnout of young women for Miss Belarus’ regional competitions.
Many eligible contestants now do not want “to risk” their good names by participating in the government-run pageant, alleged PR professional Anna Mirochnik.
In Brest, a western city of a few hundred thousand people, only one woman, 20-year-old accordion teacher Maryya Kuleshova, took part. The year before, some 20 candidates had competed.
In the western city of Hrodna, one of the most active regional protest sites, the competition was held behind closed doors, with police stationed at the entrance. The organizers did not allow any non-government-run media to attend the event or to talk with the participants.
Twenty-three women competed, compared with 80 in 2018, the last time a Miss Belarus tryout was held in Hrodna.
In Minsk, to boost the numbers, city officials reportedly attempted to assist.
In late April, the Telegram channel Belye Khalaty (White Robes) posted a photo of an alleged city government memo in which the capital city’s nine districts were each asked to send five qualified women to take part in Minsk’s Miss Belarus competition at the National School of Beauty.
ОNТ’s Lobach, who oversees the station’s special projects, concedes some difficulties with numbers, but not because of outrage over violated civil rights or respect for gender equality.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the postponement of the 2020 pageant’s final round. Out of last year’s 133 semifinalists, only 83 still qualified for the 2021 pageant, Lobach said.
Candidates must be between 18 and 24 years old and at least 174 centimeters (5’7”) tall. They must be unmarried and without children. Body piercings and tattoos are not allowed.
After asking candidates who did not qualify in 2020 to join the competition, the pageant chose 125 semifinalists, according to Lobach. Out of these, 30 will take part in the September 10 final round.
Many young women interested in modeling or other visual professions such as television traditionally have seen Miss Belarus as a way to advance their careers.
But critics like Yulia Mitskevich, head of the National Coordination Council’s FemGruppa, or Feminist Group, believe that Miss Belarus winners likely are obliged to do Lukashenka’s bidding.
“It’s very difficult for me to imagine how difficult it must be for girls to refuse a proposal to go with them somewhere,” Mitskevich said of Lukashenka’s coterie. “We don’t know the entire lowdown about what happens with these girls after [the pageant], and on what conditions they end up in this person’s circle. We can only guess.”
Few ascents to prominence have been more rapid than that of 24-year-old Maryya Vasilevich, the 2018 Miss Belarus.
After winning her title, Vasilevich frequently accompanied Lukashenka to public events, including soccer’s 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Lukashenka helped prepare Vasilevich for the 2018 Miss World competition by teaching her to chop wood, spokeswoman Natalia Eismont claimed. The university student finished in the top five and was named Miss World Europe.
In 2019, at the age of 22, she went on to become the youngest deputy in Belarus’ House of Representatives, the lower chamber of parliament. Although British publications such as The Times subsequently depicted her as Lukashenka’s girlfriend, Vasilevich has denied these allegations.
A member of parliament’s human rights committee, she initially denounced police violence against election protesters, but has since gone to work on draft legislation that would deny citizenship to Belarusians for terrorism, extremism, or “serious harm” to state interests.
Government officials and Lukashenka routinely accuse protesters of such actions.
But Miss Belarus co-organizer Lobach likely sees Vasilevich’s work as natural for one of the pageant’s “true Belarusians.”
Such a woman, she noted to SP.by, is “always a patriot,” who “supports national unity,” and “lives in the Belarus that we have.”
-This story was written by Elizabeth Owen based on Olga Zhernosek's July 1, 2021 Current Time article Как конкурс "Мисс Беларусь" связан с Лукашенко – и почему участниц приходится искать по разнарядке.