Aleksandr Lukashenko has been President of Belarus for 26 years. Often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, he appeared to have widespread support in Belarusian society until recently (Victor, 2020). In 2020 Belarus witnessed nationwide protests against Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime (BBC News, 2020). The time for a power shift seems to have come. After Lukashenko had excluded several male opposition politicians from the 2020 presidential elections through imprisonment or forced exile, he faced two other women – Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of an opposition leader, as his electoral competitor. The public quickly realized the situation and supported Tikhanovskaya out of a desire for change and fair elections (BBC News, 2020). After losing his legitimacy, Lukashenko is now trying to hold onto his power with the help of an enormous security apparatus and direct violence against the population (Smith, 2009).
Lukashenko tries to uphold the old norms of marginalization and delegitimization of the Belarusian population, especially women, in the political process and tries to spread his idea of Belarusian identity. However, 2020 has massively changed the political arena in Belarus. This paper will attempt to explain one aspect of this political shift in Belarus. The aim is to analyze the role norms and identities played in the conflict over the presidential elections.
This article therefore tries to answer the question “To what extent have new political norms and identities shaped and influenced the protest movements around the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus?? “and examine norms and identities, their origins, their role in conflict and their political potential. It will therefore use the theoretical framework of feminist constructivism and the theory of the norm life cycle proposed by Finnemore and Sikkink. To analyze the above question, in This paper examines the situation in terms of key political norms and prevailing national identity both before and after the 2020 elections, and concludes that Tikhanovskaya and her associates have brought about a normative change in Belarusian politics and the population have given a new sense of identity, detached from Lukashenko’s person, I claim that this process can be described as political emancipation or awakening in the population.
This paper will adopt a feminist constructivist framework to examine the proposed research question (Locher & Prügl, 2001). In particular, the concept of norms and identities is examined – their emergence, their role in conflict and their political potential. It will therefore use the theory of the life cycle of norms proposed by Finnemore and Sikkink (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 892).
At the center of the theoretical framework of feminist constructivism is the ontology of becoming (Hurd, 2008; Locher & Prügl, 2001). Feminist constructivism emphasizes the fact that our understanding of the world and its existence is a “transformation process” rather than a “positional process” and focuses its research on social phenomena such as norms, identities and language. These phenomena are the means to reproduce our social structure and to understand aspects of global politics such as the constitution of international actors and the emergence of social change (Locher & Prügl, 2001). This makes the approach for the research question mentioned above attractive, as it enables a more differentiated analysis of the relevant phenomena than classical IR theories such as realism and liberalism could do. As mentioned above, the aspect of feminist constructivist theory that will play the main role in this paper is the influence of norms and identities on the socio-political power structure in the current conflict in Belarus. The paper will focus on the one hand on Lukashenko and his supporters as so-called norm spoilers and on the other hand on the opposition movement, which revolves around the trio of Tikhanovskaya, Tsepkalo and Kolesnikova as norm entrepreneurs. It will also illustrate how the female trio helped create a new Belarusian national identity that is the driving force behind political emancipation in the country.
Norms, identities and the life cycle of norms
Wendt actors take on certain identities by participating in collective meanings. These identities manifest themselves as stable, role-specific expectations that influence the behavior and perception of political events. They are tied to a particular socially constructed world and carry an inherent social definition of the actor based on the actor’s beliefs (Wendt, 1992). Wendt leads to norms and states that identities serve as the basis for norms and interests. Norms are generally understood as the “standard for appropriate behavior by actors with a certain identity” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 891). They become clear through the judgment of a community or society, which expresses itself as disapproval in the case of behavior contrary to the norm and as praise in the case of behavior in accordance with the norm. Because norms embody some kind of expectation or feeling of “should” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998), they can help us understand political actions based on considerations of justification or consent. To understand how norms arise, change and cease, Finnemore and Sikkink developed the theory of the “life cycle of norms”. (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998) This theory shows how an emerging norm can achieve broad consensus through acceptance by a critical mass of actors. Finnemore and Sikkink divide this process into three steps – standard development, standard cascade and standard internalization (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). The first phase is characterized by the work of so-called standards entrepreneurs who actively try to promote new standards and convince a critical mass of actors to adopt them. They draw attention to a particular problem based on their perception of desirable behavior in relation to that problem in a society. The difficulty here is that new norms never enter society in a norm vacuum, but always in a highly competitive normative space. In order to reach the second stage – the norm cascade – the norm entrepreneurs have to manage to pass a turning point in order to convince a certain number of actors who support the newly proposed norm. Once this is achieved, the norm can quickly spread through a mechanism of socialization such as legitimation, conformity and appreciation. The third stage of the norm lifecycle model indicates the point in time at which a norm has reached the status of internalization and is widely taken for granted (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). However, this paper will mainly focus on the first two phases of this model, as Belarusian society has not yet reached the level of internalization.
The situation before the 2020 elections
Belarus used to be part of the Soviet Union and gained independence in 1991. The country struggled to develop its own national identity as it was known as one of the most “Russified” countries in the USSR. The Belarusian population held the Soviet Union in high esteem, as several surveys have shown. In 1991 69% of Belarusians identified with the Soviet Union or in 1999 only 36.7% spoke the Belarusian language (Jachovič, 2019). Despite this high level of approval of the former values of the USSR, a nationalist discourse arose in the country, claiming that the Soviet Union had destroyed the Belarusian population and the Belarusian consciousness. However, this did not find much support as the proposed changes such as the reintroduction of the Belarusian language were implemented immediately (Astapova, 2017; Bugrova, 1998).
When Belarus held its first democratic elections in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko appeared in the political arena for the first time and was welcomed with popular support as he promised stability and upheld many of the old Soviet values. He won the first presidential election with 80.1 percent (Astapova, 2017). By keeping the promises he made, Lukashenko managed to increase his popularity among the population. After this wave of approval, the president held a successful referendum that allowed him to restart his five-year term. In 1999 opposition members expressed their opposition and declared that his term as president was now over. However, the main candidate was soon imprisoned and the opposition protest was violently ceased (Astapova, 2017).
In the next election in 2001, Lukashenko stated that he had won again. However, this choice has been declared undemocratic and unfair by the European regulators. According to the Belarusian constitution, Lukashenko would have to resign as president after the end of this term. However, in 2004 he held another referendum that allowed him to vote in an unlimited number of new elections. Lukashenko took advantage of this and won the next three elections in 2006, 2010 and 2015. All of these past elections were accompanied by allegations of electoral fraud and violently suppressed protests (Astapova, 2017).
The main problem with the lack of success of these earlier opposition movements is that they have been pressured by both the state and civil society. The state did not recognize them as agents who could participate in the decision-making process. The rest of society did not recognize them because in an authoritarian regime the majority of people often have no intention of protesting against authoritarianism. They regard the social order as legitimate and the fight against authoritarianism as illegitimate (Lavrinenko, 2015). Social movements only reflected the values and ideas of a small parallel civil society in Belarus.
This is mainly due to the way Lukashenko shaped political norms and national identity in the young post-Soviet country (Rohava, 2018). When discussing Belarusian national identity scholars, the country is often portrayed as a battle of identity discourses within the unequal political arena of autocracy, as Rohava (2020) points out. The country is said to lack the imagination of a common history or the idea of common future prospects. Many Belarusians formulate their national identification on the basis of the territory in which they were born and the political regime embodied in President Lukashenko. Their identity is based on the stability that seems to be held together by the presumed stability of the authoritarian ruler. The common meaning of being Belarusian seems to be determined by conflict-free and depoliticized attitudes towards identity (Rohava, 2018). This population group is in the majority, also known as “Soviet Belarusians”, who allegedly prefer stability to progress (Manayeva, Aniskevich & Dinerstein, 2011).
This is further reinforced by the regime’s control of the mass media and the flow of information in the country. The media serve the authoritarian government as a propaganda tool and enable the president to spread his idea of ”Belarus” (Bekus, 2011). Astapova discusses in her research that the Belarusian state media are heavily biased in favor of Lukashenko and his agenda. This helps him to promote the common image of the population of their president (Astapova, 2017).
In addition, the president openly admitted that his government was rigging the elections and trying to prevent the opposition from entering the political arena by any means at its disposal (Astapova, 2017). This is done, for example, by adding fake ballot papers in support of Lukashenko, through the suspicious loss of electoral registers or more directly through the public devaluation or even imprisonment of opposition candidates (Astapova, 2017).
The amazing thing about this whole system is that people are fully aware of the fraud and manipulation, but the majority do not interfere. The people are stunned by the political crimes that are happening in their country. They accept the norms that have shaped Belarusian politics for decades, namely the inability of the population to change the political power structures, the overt manipulation of the political process, and the natural exclusion and humiliation of Belarusian women in the political arena (Hosa, 2020). In particular, the exclusion of women from the political arena is very obvious, as Astapova shows in her work. “I’m a girl and I don’t get involved in politics, ”says a 21-year-old who was interviewed in Minsk (Astapova, 2017, p. 22). Many women claim that there is nothing they can do about the current political situation or argue that they are satisfied with their position, which is not expected to express political opinions or engage in political decision-making processes (Astapova, 2017).
This environment makes it very difficult for Belarus to develop different political norms and national identities. However, the analysis of the events related to the 2020 presidential election in the following part of the paper shows that this is possible. It examines how Tikhanovskaya, Tsepkalo and Kolesnikova acted as so-called norm entrepreneurs and gave the Belarusian population a new sense of what it means to be Belarusian. It also examines the role that gender played in this process and how the role of women in Belarusian politics has changed dramatically.
The situation in 2020
With the appearance of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Belarusian politics, the situation in the country changed. Despite acknowledging her lack of political knowledge, she quickly gained popularity (Specia, 2020). By joining forces with Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, the trio soon became the face of the opposition and captured the hearts of the general public, giving them hope that political change might be possible (Hosa, 2020).
Tikhanovskaya and her fellow campaigners can be described as norm entrepreneurs who propose a new norm in order to re-involve and empower the Belarusian people, and especially women, in the political process. The trio shows the possibility of shaking up the political structure in Belarus and gives the people a new national identity that is not linked to Lukashenko and his government. Tikhanovskaya is a home mother and English teacher – a woman of the people (Specia, 2020). It shows people that they can and should participate in politics. She is the figurehead of normative change and a new understanding of what it means to be Belarusian.
Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova founded the Women in White movement under the leadership of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and played a central role in this year’s protests in connection with the presidential elections (Serhan, 2020). This feminine unity has encouraged thousands of women to believe in their power and agency, and to regain their influence in a male-dominated society. “It is generally recognized that the recent struggle for democracy in Belarus has a female face,” explains CEDAW (2020, p. 1). Women from all phases of life march together through the streets and peacefully fight against Lukashenko’s brutal rule. Dressed in white and decorated with flowers, they create powerful images that appear in the news around the world, thus contributing to the critical norm cascade currently taking place in Belarus (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). “The women in white” could be the beginning of a long overdue change in Belarus (Serhan, 2020). “From the start, this has been a women-inspired and led riot,” said The Guardian (Provost, Torrisi & Snip, 2020).
The regime greatly underestimated the power of women. This became clear after Lukashenko allowed Tikhanovskaya to run for the presidential election after forcibly eliminating several male candidates, as he had done in previous elections (Astapova, 2017). His misogynistic opinion allowed her to stay in the race as he didn’t give her a chance. “Our society is not ready to vote for a woman. Since in our country, according to the constitution, the president has a strong power (…) that the president will be a man, I am absolutely convinced ”, said Lukashenko in May (Hosa, 2020, p. 1). By stating this publicly, he pointed to the ingrained norm of the inability of the population – and especially women – to change the political power structures in Belarus (Hosa, 2020).
Despite widespread support for Tikhanovskaya and her new political agenda, Lukashenko maintained his victory with an overwhelming 80 percent of the vote (BBC News, 2020). This apparent electoral fraud sparked large, peaceful protests across the country. Lukashenko’s response to the mostly peaceful protests included police brutality, the shutdown of internet and telephone services and the detention of thousands of demonstrators. Since the beginning of the election campaign season in May, the Belarusian authorities have arbitrarily arrested almost 12,000 people, according to the NGO Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH) (FIDH, 2020). These included peaceful demonstrators, presidential candidates, human rights defenders and journalists, a significant proportion of whom were women. Excessive violence and arbitrary arrests have led to ill-treatment and harassment of over 500 people in police cars and detention centers (FIDH, 2020).
Tikhanovskaya and her ally Tsepkalo had to leave the country and Kolesnikova was arrested. (BBC News, 2020) But despite the “loss” of the spearheads of the opposition movement to Lukashenko’s cruel rule, the protests don’t stop. Weekly mass protests continue to take place on the streets in Minsk, showing that society is calling for change and is no longer behind Lukashenko.
The violent and degrading reaction of the authorities has shown not only a lack of rationality, but also a lack of acceptance of the new norms that are emerging on the political stage. Lukashenko’s resistance to allowing the postponement and meeting with the women-led opposition to reach an agreement as equal counterparts underscores his thirst for power and deeply misogynistic outlook. He further confirmed this through his secret initiation, which has symbolic value for the attempt to maintain old norms and power structures (FIDH, 2020).
In the current circumstances, the norms applicable to women engaging in politics seem to be finally being challenged on a broad social level. People from all social groups are part of the discourse initiated by the three women who lead the opposition. Lukashenko is losing his ground in the discourse about the normative framework of Belarusian politics, but tries to hold on to the power structures that still exist with all the means at his disposal. He ignores the fact that Tikhanovskaya and her associates have allied with the country; You have captured people’s hearts and people are protesting that they have a voice.
The above procedures in Belarus definitely represent a country’s struggle for democracy, but they don’t just symbolize a movement of political empowerment for women. As I have shown, the movement, led by Tikhanovskaya, Tsepkalo and Kolesnikova, has led to a normative change in Belarusian politics and the development of a new sense of national identity. The Belarusian people regained their belief in political freedom and participated in the push to overthrow the Lukashenko regime. The answer to my research question is therefore: The newly emerging norms and the new feeling of national identity have promoted the emancipation of the Belarusian population towards a more democratic and freer future. This shift was initiated in large measure by Tikhanovskaya and her companions.
However, given the current situation in Belarus, the question remains whether this was enough to bring about complete political change in the country. It can be seen that Lukashenko continues to use force to eliminate the opposition movements and remains with the full support of the country’s executive authorities.
International viewers like CEDAW and FIDH declare that the goal of this revolution is to establish a free, democratic, participatory and inclusive electoral process that fully respects women’s rights and is free from error or coercion (CEDAW, 2020; FIDH, 2020 ). The organizations advocate the establishment of a dialogue in order to find a peaceful solution that meets the demands of the population for new and fully democratic elections.
Given the limited scope of this paper, the question remains how such a peaceful settlement can be achieved. It has potential for future research projects that could investigate whether e.g. Increased international scrutiny of Belarus could be key to deter further abuses and help victims pursue democracy and justice, as proposed by Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch, 2020).
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