By all appearances, a new opposition in Belarus is thwarting the attempts by Alexander Lukashenko to steal another election. In a political area that is usually dominated by men, women in Belarus are leading their country through this historic moment. Their leadership in the face of oppression, violence, and exile has united their country. During a time of polarization in the United States, they should inspire confidence with the democratic system of government and the role of women around the world.
When I traveled with the International Republican Institute to the Baltics in 2005 to train opposition leaders in Belarus on how to manage the political convention, I worked mostly with men. These brave leaders slipped across the border to learn the basics of party development which we do not have to think twice about in the United States, such as the credentials, delegate selections, candidate nominations, and governance platforms.
The Belarusians I trained went on to compete for the 2006 election in the country, and they led the jeans revolution. The playbook of Lukashenko to maintain his hold on power was clearly on display back then. He detained political opponents, stacked the votes, prohibited independent observers from visiting the polls, imposed an information blackout, and imprisoned anyone who protested that the election was neither free nor fair.
Then, just as now, Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory over his three rivals. As the polls closed, thousands of Belarusians went out to the cold and against the security state to protest. The opposition adopted the use of denim, a symbol of the west, as their own color. This year, Lukashenko turned to that destructive playbook again. The people of Belarus and the new women opposition leaders, however, were ready this time.
Public surveys indicate the people of Belarus have become tired of all the economic problems that have been plaguing their country over the years. Acceptance of Soviet style governance by Lukashenko is fading with each next generation. The tradeoffs between election freedoms and economic stability that does not deliver is simply not acceptable anymore.
Lukashenko overestimated how quickly Belarusians embraced the female face of the opposition. Ahead of the election last month, the Lukashenko regime arrested Sergei Tikhanovski, the popular blogger turned leader of the “slipper uprising” and political rival. Dismissing the seriousness of her candidacy, the regime then allowed his wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an English teacher and mother of two to run for office in his place.
After she had unified with Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, a wife and a campaign manager of two other jailed candidates, the three women campaigned on the simple platform to release all political prisoners and to hold free and fair elections in the country within six months. They ran on a motto of “we love, we can, we will win” and quickly eclipsed their partners as the popular faces of the democratic opposition inside Belarus.
As Lukashenko declared another landslide 80 percent victory last month, the protesters flooded the streets. The security forces quickly resorted to violence and had detained nearly 7,000 protesters. Tikhanouskaya, under threat of arrest, fled to Lithuania and called for the peaceful protesters to continue. She has said that if results in some trustworthy precincts are an indication, she may have won more than 60 percent of the votes.
Inspired by the leadership of these women, others now lead the demands for change. The “Women in White” organize protests in Minsk and around the world to call for stability and new elections. They welcome defecting security officers with open arms and form solidarity chains all across the country. They have also moved workers across the economic spectrums to walk off the job and loudly call for Lukashenko to step down.
Tikhanovskaya did not attend my training when I visited the Baltics, but she and the women opposition leaders are better placed to usher in the end of tyranny for Belarus than any others who have come before them. Their willingness to risk their lives to enter into politics is reminiscent of the many successful democratic movements around the world.
This is also exactly what Ronald Reagan and John McCain had envisioned when they established the International Republican Institute. Indeed, our founders of the United States were not rich in this democratic expertise. Forming the new government of by and for the people out of tyranny is a challenge few would accept. Yet the institutions they crafted still endure and have grown to secure more freedoms for more Americans.
If the democratic moment for Belarus has arrived, the opposition will have fast allies in the United States and groups like the International Republican Institute. They can also rest assured that a new democratic Belarus will be tested, but it can endure with the strong foundation. Then in Belarus, as in the United States, elections will be held, a true winner will take office, and change only dreamed of for so many years will truly take place.
Ashley Davis serves on the board of the Women Democracy Network of the International Republican Institute and the founder of West Front Strategies.