On 9 August, a mass movement erupted in Belarus, with protesters furious about the disputed presidential election result. A brutal police crackdown against peaceful protesters followed. Along with recent protests in eastern Russia’s Khabarovsk region and clashes in the Bashkortostan area, how does this movement connect to a larger picture of global democratic awakening in the last year?
In fact, the protests in Belarus reveal some major trends in how the nature of political organisation has been changing around the world, from the US and Hong Kong to Beirut and the post-Soviet region.
Right now, we are undergoing the conscious act of changing the way that power is exercised, via the “feminisation” of politics. Three female faces have become the symbol of Belarusians’ discontent with the status quo: main opposition candidate and former teacher Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, along with Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova.
Thousands of other Belarusian women have emerged on the front lines and epitomised resistance and hope. They took to the streets as a spontaneously organised movement the day after there were horrifying reports of police violence and torture in detention. They were dressed in white, carried flowers and sang lullabies.
What is of note is not just a mere emergence of women in the traditionally patriarchal public-political scene, but a fundamentally different, feminist way of doing politics. The structure and culture of politics in the post-Soviet space has been developed almost entirely by men in past decades. This has given rise to an economy based on competition, consumerism, hierarchy and non-accountability; dependent on fossil fuels and the military industrial complex, and powered by macho-masculine figures. Instead, a feminised approach to politics proposes a new set of values seeking to emphasise participation, empathy and non-violence, and calls for modes of political organisation based on popular power in which democracy plays a leading role.
“I entered politics not for the sake of power, but for the restoration of justice,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya wrote in her manifesto. Political culture, embodied by a Belarusian female trio, places care and people’s needs at the center of the debate. A truly liberating act of bravery of the “women in white” movement gives life to the feminisation of politics as a practice: the recognition that people are vulnerable and interdependent and that, instead of saving ourselves individually, we are capable of building a new political space together.
New politics becomes a politics of trust and commitment to values as opposed to a politics of fear. The mandate of political representatives is now highly conditional on maintaining trust and a shared moral purpose with their supporters. When people do not trust that institutions, including the police, have their interest at heart, they may withdraw from engagement and delegitimise the relationship. Electoral fraud, brutal police crackdowns and harassment of opposition candidates and journalists in Belarus have led to deep distrust, which is fatally undermining the stability of the state.
Even external legitimisation could hardly save a state that has lost trust in its primary stakeholders – its citizens. From apartheid in South Africa to crony-ridden Indonesia, despite being accepted by international actors, illegitimate regimes have been overthrown by discontent populations. Unprecedented mobilisation of people in Belarus, bound by common values and expectations derived from them, may contest the regime – even if that regime has been endorsed already by foreign leaders who have sent their congratulations to Alexander Lukashenko on his election victory.
Recent years saw citizens’ grievances turning into spontaneous, mostly nonviolent grassroots demonstrations against their respective governments in Lebanon, Hong Kong, the US, Bolivia and Chile, but also Iraq, Spain, France, Ecuador, Honduras, Haiti, Egypt, and Algeria, Russia, Indonesia and Thailand. It is in vogue to call these movements “leaderless”. However, it is also true that these arrangements empowered activists to exercise individual leadership to the extent that it helped a common cause.
After Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country, a spontaneously born “women in white” movement took over as a group of informal leaders. Then workers from several big Belarusian factories, as well as medics and artists, followed suit. This type of leadership and organisation shows new recognition of what power is and where it comes from.
With egalitarian spirit at its core, the members of this movement believe that everyone has a voice, and that everyone’s voice matters. This offers a striking contrast to a centralised leadership structure of the old system, which is embodied by a dictator figure on top of it. Lukashenko may still remain the president in the old, analogue, centralised world, but he is no longer at the top in the digital world of distributed leadership.
Anastasia Kalinina is a former head of Eurasia at the World Economic Forum, and is setting up the Re-State Foundation, which aims to reimagine the future of global governanc
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