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Change is female

Belarusian economist Sergey Chaly talks about the role of women in Belarusian protests.

15. October 2020
Magazine > Feature > Change is female

Belarusian economist Sergey Chaly is a member of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Coordination Council. In a radio interview, parts of which have been transcribed by the independent Belarusian online medium tut.by, he talks about his experiences of these extraordinary days in his homeland and what he makes of them.

After the 9 August election, we witnessed an escalation of violence that – quite obviously – is not going anywhere. It is just as obvious that this was the strategy of those in power, the plan of the siloviki.

““It was incredible and very inspiring” – The role of women

The worst day was Wednesday [more than 6000 people were arrested, some of them brutally abused in prison – editor’s note dekoder]. A thought crossed my mind: What will they do the next day? Will there be an extrajudicial reckoning? We were really scared; there was no longer any organised opposition like the barricades around the Riga shopping centre.[1] The next morning, women formed chains, bearing flowers. At first, I thought I was a little too sensitive but then I realised that this was perfectly okay. I actually cried because I realised: that’s it. Once again, women have saved our country. I understand how frightening it must have been to be standing there, after all that horror. It was incredible and very inspiring!

These are women who stand up for their men. And they all have the same motive: “Why the hell did you lock up our men?!” This is particularly painful in a country where half of the male population was killed in the Great Patriotic War and women had to take their place. This is an archetype you cannot compete with. The events in Belarus will go down in history as the first feminist revolution – feminism in the good sense of the word. It is already clear that it’s a radical change.

Violence and lack of respect

The things Belarusians learned when the internet was switched on again [the internet was largely blocked for several days just after the vote – editor’s note dekoder] came as a shock to them. The many testimonies of humiliation, the transformation of the Okrestina detention centre[2] into a torture facility, the barbaric sadism against their own people – it was tremendously upsetting for everyone. Even the siloviki seemed demoralised.

The banner reads: “We are not sheep[…], we work at the MTZ plan, and there aren’t 20 of us, but 16,000.”

The desperation and weakness of Lukashenko and his allies become clearly visible when they try to engage in dialogue with the people. Whether it was Roman Golovchenko[3] at the Minsk tractor factory MTZ[4] or Natalya Kochanova[5], who visited the state broadcaster BT – they were both unable to talk to the people. The workers wanted to know why they were called sheep or drug addicts, why they were tortured, why reports claimed that only twenty people went on strike. And the answer was: “Well, we give you work after all, we pay your wages.” They really don’t understand what the people want. They don’t understand why people strongly reject the president’s disrespectful attitude during his election campaign, in front of “his people” – showing his annoyance with his own people.

“Where is my people?” – Rally of Lukashenko and his supporters

I have already said that 80 per cent of the votes can be easily faked. But then it’s like in the film Tsar[6] when Ivan the Terrible[7] steps outside but nobody has showed up to attend his coronation. So he stands there desperately: “Where is my people?” In our case it was apparently necessary to wheel in “his people” [with buses – editor’s note dekoder], and even then, only a few turned up.

It’s like the cliché about domestic violence. The man says: “Fine, let’s get a divorce. But you’ll remember me, bitch! You won’t find anyone better than me anyway! I’m the best you’ve ever had in your life!” These are the words of an offended husband whose wife leaves him. “If you chase away your first president, it will be the beginning of the end.” Like the offended husband, Lukashenko says: You’ll remember me for a long time. The Belarusians will probably do so – but not in the way Lukashenko imagines.

“You are incredible” – Belarusians’ new self-image

[During the March for Freedom on 16 August – editor’s note dekoder] Minsk had the air of a vacation resort celebrating carnival: people everywhere, at the Hero City Obelisk, on the main avenue (Prospect[8]), at Independence Square. There were no grey, gloomy faces, no omnipresent pessimism, which many guests from abroad have often noticed. We simply hadn’t paid attention to how repulsive it was, this tenacious fear in which we had to live. The diffuse pressure that was in the air everywhere. For a long time you don’t notice it, thinking it’s normal, but when you’re relieved of it, the changes are incredible. You look around and you think: how beautiful all those people are!

[About Maria Kolesnikova’s slogan “You are unbelievable!” – editor’s note dekoder] This is how positive reinforcement works! If you tell people how pathetic they are, that they are worthless without their president – then you’ll get a certain result. But if you tell them how great they are, the result will be different. Hence the special details of the Belarusian protest: that people take off their shoes before stepping on a bench, that they make sure trash is picked up during the protests, fetch water for each other or give each other a ride home.

The Belarusian protest is an incredibly strong phenomenon. The Belarus regime has recently been one of the region’s most brutal. And the protest has no leaders. We see Belarus as a nation that is becoming self-aware, the foundation of which is all those who are not dependent on the state. That is why it’s so revolting to constantly hear the government saying: “But we give you everything…” Yes, you give people work – and you pay many of them miserable wages.

Feeding alone is no longer enough – the activity of IT people

Many people from the IT sector [some of whose companies are on strike too – editor’s note dekoder] have lived in an enclave – in the Belarusian Silicon Valley[9], on the hip Zybitskaya party street[10] or at the barber shops. These people have suddenly understood that they want to be part of what’s going on. They don’t want to stand idly by, but participate. They’re no longer interested in the transition phase but in what comes after that.

Here’s the logic behind it: Let’s suppose Lukashenko remains in office. This means that the IT sector would be fleeced since there is not much left elsewhere in the country. Take the cost of moving abroad, for instance. It’s not like ten years ago when everyone was still working illegally in one-person businesses and threatened to move away. Today, they are big corporations with big orders. A move would incur gigantic costs for these companies. They are willing to invest capital to prevent this scenario from happening. This is a clear sign that we are witnessing the birth of a nation. It is no longer a poor social contract, as if to say, “We feed you and don’t beat you, but in return you stay out of politics”.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the face of the revolution

If the revolution is feminist, I will call it that. Take Svetlana Georgiyevna Tikhanovskaya[11]: I don’t know what happened, but she found the courage and asserted that she was ready to take the lead during the transition period. Obviously, she’s forced to keep a low profile. Apparently, there are some agreements with the security authorities that have taken her out of the country. We are also aware that her husband is being held hostage. Nevertheless – she’s back as the face of change.

“Eighty per cent” – the stolen victory

I do not rule out that police will again be ordered to beat up protesters. But whether they will execute this order is questionable. Viktor Babariko[12] was right: You cannot falsify the will of the people when the scales tip too far in one direction. Turning 55 per cent into 79 per cent is electoral fraud. What has happened here is no longer a falsification; it’s a stolen election victory.

We’ve always been instilled with the fear that the country will perish, that we’ll once again walk barefoot and be subjugated. However, during the march on Sunday, everyone felt how they were able to breathe freely as soon as they had shaken off this everlasting tenacious fear. Now imagine the same thing happening with the economy: the endless pressure and total control disappear, and creative people’s energy is released. I’ve been to the US; I’ve seen how something like that can happen. It’s incredibly impressive. Take Pittsburgh for example, which came from nowhere to become an industrial giant. That’s the way it works. This is the future we have ahead of us – forget about bast shoes and the horror of the 1990s.

The transition is a marathon, not a sprint

Now the key is to agree on a peaceful transfer to power to the elected president Svetlana Georgiyevna Tikhanovskaya, who is temporarily in exile. She may not be the ideal president, but she is ideal for this transition. As a person, she has impeccable moral capital and demonstrated incredible personal qualities during the campaign. It’s obvious that she doesn’t want to become president, and therein lies her advantage. I am sure that the next election will be extremely interesting. It will be a real clash of programmes and geopolitical preferences. I think that even a party of Lukashenko’s supporters could emerge, demanding that everything should go back to the way it was.

It is important now that we are patient, that we show love and don’t lose hope. That means to do what the world’s first feminist revolution has done so far. We are running ahead of the whole world. And as Lukashenko once put it: In the end, all countries will envy us.

[1] During the mass protests against the election fraud in the Belarusian presidential election in August 2020, isolated barricades were erected in downtown Minsk in response to the severe crackdown on the security forces. The largest barricade, consisting of dumpsters, stones, and fences, was on the night of 10-11 August in northeast Minsk near the Riga shopping mall. It was quickly removed by water cannons.

[2] The Okrestina prison is a so-called “center for the isolation of lawbreakers” on the outskirts of the Belarusian capital Minsk. During mass protests against the election fraud in the presidential election in August 2020, the prison became a symbol of the brutality of President Lukashenko’s security apparatus. Many of the demonstrators detained here reported torture and degrading treatment by the security forces.

[3] Roman Golovchenko (born 1973, Belarusian – Raman Haloutschenka) is a Belarusian politician. He studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and the Administration Academy under the President of the Republic of Belarus. From 2013 he was ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, from 2018 to Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. After briefly heading the State Committee on Military Industry, he was appointed Prime Minister of Belarus by President Alexander Lukashenko in early June 2020. In the wake of the mass protests that followed the fraud in the presidential election, he submitted his resignation on 17 August 2020.

[4] MTZ (Minski Traktorny Zavod, eng. Minsk Tractor Plant) is a Belarusian manufacturer of agricultural machinery and tractors. The first plant was founded in 1946. Today MTZ is one of the world’s largest companies in the industry, measured in terms of production items. The technology of agricultural machinery is considered outdated. The majority of MTZ exports go to the countries of the former Soviet Union and Pakistan.

[5] Natalya Kochanova (born 1960, Belarusian: Natallya Kachanava) is a Belarusian politician. She comes from Polatz in northern Belarus, where she also worked in the municipal utilities and city administration after completing her studies. In 2014 she was appointed Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus, and from 2016 to 2019, she headed the Presidential Administration. She has been the chairwoman of the Council of the Republic, the upper house of the Belarusian parliament, since December 2019.

[6] Tsar is a film by Russian director Pavel Lungin (born 1949) from 2009. It tells about two years of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s life, during the time of the so-called oprichnina. The focus is on the relationship between the tsar and the Moscow metropolitan Philip, and the fight against dissidents and political opponents. The rock musician Pyotr Mamonov played the main role.

[7] Ivan IV Vasilyevich the Terrible (1530–1584) was Grand Duke of Moscow before he declared himself Tsar of Russia in 1547. His campaigns against the Tatar khanates brought enormous land gains, and Tsarist Russia expanded. A large part of his time on the throne was shaped by the so-called oprichnina – a regionally restricted, tyrannical domestic policy directed against the population with extensive terror.

[8] The term prospect (from Latin prospectus, prospect), was already used in the Russian Empire, describes wide, multi-lane, and long streets in Russian cities. They are located in the centre or are connecting lines between outer districts and the city center. Roads that have similar external characteristics but are located outside the city centers are called highways. World-famous prospectuses are the Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg or the Leningradski Prospect in Moscow.

[9] The Belarus Hi-Tech Park (HTP) is a technology park on the Belarusian capital Minsk’s outskirts. The initiative for the park came from Valeri Zepkalo in 2005, who also directed it until 2017. The park promotes the settlement and development of companies in the IT sector through tax breaks. Around 30,000 people work in the more than 680 companies located in the HTP. Their income is about four times the Belarusian average. Officially, the IT sector contributes around six percent to Belarusian gross domestic product. According to forecasts, this proportion should increase to ten percent by 2022.

[10] Zybitskaya Street is in the old town of Minsk. In recent years, the street near the Swislatsch River with its shops, bars, and cafes has become a nightlife centre.

[11] Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (born 1982, Belarusian: Svyatlana Zichanouskaja) is a non-party Belarusian politician. In the presidential election in August 2020, she ran as a candidate against the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko. The election was obviously manipulated. The official election result, with around 80 percent for Lukashenko, was partially demonstrably falsified. Tikhanovskaya, who initially claimed the election victory, apparently had to leave Belarus involuntarily and is now in Lithuania.

[12] Viktor Babariko (born 1963, Belarusian: Viktar Babaryka) is a Belarusian opposition politician and former banker. He has been working in the Belarusian banking sector since 1995, most recently as CEO of Belgazprombank. After announcing his intention to run for the Belarusian presidential election, he and his son were arrested on June 18, 2020, on corruption charges and are currently in jail.

Original in Russian. First published on 18 August 2020 on Tut.by and on 11 September 2020 on dekoder.org in German.
Translation into German by Dekoder editorial team.
Translation into English by Barbara Maya

This text is protected by copyright: ©Olga Loiko / Sergey Chaly / tut.by / dekoder.org. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Women at a demonstration against police violence during the recent rallies by opposition supporters after the presidential election in Minsk. Photo: ©Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters / picturedesk.com