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Political Lion Skin: what it means for Belarus to have a female opposition leader?

Written by Ruta Skriptaite, PhD Researcher at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.

 

 “The political lion skin has a large mane and belonged to a male lion, it is a costume for men. When women finally win the right to don the lion skin it is exceedingly ill-fitting and therefore unbecoming.”                                                                                                                                          Carole Pateman, The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 1995), p.6.

 

Political lion skin: a short history of Belarusian political leadership

The history of pre-Soviet Belarus was marked by an overwhelming majority of patriarchal rulers. Over these many centuries of patriarchal regimes, Belarusian lands experienced a few exceptions to the rule – periods of the reign of a female ruler. These were the reign of Saint Olga, who was a regent of Kievan Rus for less than two decades during the mid and second half of the 10th century for her son Sviatoslav and the one of the empress of Russia Catherine the Great who ruled the Russian empire from 1762 until 1796, which from 1795 also included Belarusian lands. Nevertheless, whilst ruling Kievan Rus for approximately 15 years, Saint Olga was a regent for her son rather than an elected ruler or one whose rule passed directly onto her through the line of succession. Catherine the Great, on the other hand, although being the official ruler of the empire and acquiring the lands that are now constituting the Belarusian state, reigned over them just for almost exactly a year until her death in 1796. She was succeeded by a male successor Pavel I. The era of the tsars-batushkas (fathers-tsars) was succeeded by the Soviet patriarchs, the most prominent of them being ‘dedushka (grandfather) Lenin, and the Father of Nations, Stalin.’ [2]

This brief glance at the history of the rulers of Belarussian lands prior to the creation of the independent Belarussian state in 1991 signals the deeply entrenched patriarchal traditions in Belarussian political culture, which over the centuries were socialised to be perceived as a norm. Consequently, the influence of such a long history having patriarchal societal hierarchies is still clearly visible in 21st century Belarus. Despite the questionable fairness of the Belarussian election of 2020, the patriarchal president Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who first assumed his office in 1994, is still clinging onto power whilst the female opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who according to many Western observers was the true winner of the election, was forced to flee the country and seek political asylum in the neighbouring Lithuania.

Following the footsteps of his predecessors Lukashenka is indeed trying to portray himself as a true Belarussian patriarch and tick all the boxes of what constitutes a ‘real man’. He is famous for his passion for ice-hockey, a ‘very manly’ sport and is often depicted by the media playing it.  He is also known for not missing the opportunity to be associated with the military – one of the manliest realms there are – and is often seen wearing military uniforms during Belarussian national holidays and celebrations. His open homophobia is a topic known world-wide along with the ‘iconic’ phrase that it is ‘better to be a dictator than gay’, which was born in March of 2012 as a response to the German Foreign Minister’s branding him ‘Europe’s last dictator’. However, what tops this machismo cake is Lukashenka’s comment after learning about female activists in the opposition, including his election competitor and now the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Haunted by various rumours and myths related to women in his life (including his wife and mother who are believed to have been sent out to a monastery or even a mental institution [3]) he reacted to this for him a very unusual situation by referring to his female opponents as ‘poor things’, who are too fragile for politics.

 

‘Poor things’? No more.

Nevertheless, the absence of female political leaders throughout Belarusian history should not be regarded as a Slavic exception. Trends like these are common in our still arguably patriarchal world. What is significant is the fact that a country that has a historical lack of female political leaders is now witnessing a nation-wide strive for political change that is coordinated and led by a woman. Despite being dismissed by the current president as ‘poor things’, Belarussian women seem to have managed to alter the ill-fitted political lion skin. Indeed, as I am writing this blog post the protests are now counting their 212 day, their input is undeniable. We saw them at the forefront of the movement actively participating in the protests and making sure (as for instance the Belarussian journalist Hanna Liubakova, who posts daily updates on the protest movement as well as human rights violations in Belarus) that the world knows of the Belarusian struggle against their long-term patriarch Batka Lukashenka, who if the movement does not succeed is likely to celebrate the 30 year anniversary of his reign. The effort of female activists has been widely recognised by foreign media – the headlines of various top media outlets praised them stating that ‘In Belarus, Women Led the Protests and Shattered Stereotypes’, ‘The Women ‘Fighting For Freedom’ In Belarus’, ‘Belarus protests: Women try to unmask those detaining protesters’ ,  ‘Belarus election: Women form ‘solidarity chains’ to condemn crackdown’.

 

A change in gender hierarchies?

At this stage one might ask – how should one interpret Lukashenka’s misogynistic statement about women as not suitable for politics? Was Batka unaware of the growing empowerment of women within Belarussian society? Was it merely an expression of his personal beliefs or rather a reliance on the history of patriarchal culture and an attempt to be congruent with his society’s moods? Either way the represented no longer seem to be in tune with their macho representative and his attachment to the archaic patriarchal discourse. According to Tsikhanouskaya, the current protests in Belarus can also be interpreted as a form of gender revolution. In her interview with Katri Makkonen , which took place on the 2nd of March, hosted by The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, she stated the following: ‘… I think that we had this gender revolution as well last year, because it was such a chance for Belarussian to say that  “look we are here the same as you”. And for sure that the fact that people supported women on the streets and me … showed that we are ready for women, accidently we are ready. And maybe we even want women to be the elite of our country. ‘

Despite the fact of being the face of a potential revolution, Tsikhanouskaya has on multiple occasions announced that she has no intentions of running for the next presidential election should the revolutionaries achieve their goals. This was yet again confirmed during her interview with Makkonen, where the opposition leader stated the following: ‘I have never had such ambitions. People are asking me now to do this and as a matter of fact I don’t really know what will be the obstacles of this new election. And never say never, but I have no intentions to participate. I had promised to the people that my mandate is only for until the next elections.’

However, despite what was for some disappointing news and the potential interpretations of such a move as making space for male oppositionists, Tsikhanouskaya suggested that she predicts quite the opposite. When asked if she could ‘see that , for example, [her] husband or other male opposition leaders would run for president and there would maybe be no women in the race’, she ensured that her stepping down does not mean the end to female presence in Belarusian high politics: ‘I am sure there will be women [in the political life of Belarus] because this year our women understood that they are strong and that they can be sometimes stronger than men.’

Regardless of Tsikhanovskaya’s intentions to step down, the sole experience of having a female opposition leader is of incredibly great significance and extreme importance to the development of Belarusian society. Such an event signals, if not an abandonment, then at least partial distancing from social constructs, which date back centuries. Whilst the extent of involvement of women in this demand for political change shows that in spite of its patriarchal legacy, Belarus holds the potential to reform its political culture and build a more equal and stronger civil society, where the participation of women in political life is seen neither as an exception to the rule nor rule breaking but rather a norm.

 

 

[2] Astapova A. ‘Political Biography: Incoherence, Contestation, and Elements of the Hero Pattern in the Belarusian Case’, Journal of Folklore Research, 53/2 (2016): 50.

[3] Ibid. p.34.

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