Feminism in Belarus: present but unpopular
This year the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked Belarus 30th out of 144 countries in its Global Gender Gap Index.
According to its indicators, Belarus surpassed highly developed countries such as Canada (35) and the United States (45). However, unlike other countries at the top of the list, Belarus does not have any coherent strategy to achieve gender equality.
2016 also saw a record increase of activity at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), where Belarus presented its 8th periodic report in October 2016. Independent NGOs and initiatives presented seven alternative, or 'shadow', reports disputing the celebratory official narrative on the state of women in Belarus.
They touched upon the issues of gender-based violence, labour rights for men and women, and reproductive health, as well as women with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community, among others. Only 1% of Belarusian NGOs advance women’s rights and among these even fewer identify themselves as ‘feminist.’
Historical and social paradoxes
The official gender equality strategy in Belarus differs from the Western European pro-feminist approach, and focuses primarily on family policies. No politician has ever openly called themselves a feminist in Belarus. Quite the contrary, while the West promotes individuality and women's rights in social, political, and economic spheres, Belarus continues to emphasise family values and maternity for women.
Feminism remains a taboo word in Belarus. Few women openly admit to being feminists, to say nothing of men or influential decision-makers. In fact, most public figures prefer to distance themselves from the feminist agenda. Neither mainstream nor oppositional political parties have a strong feminist or gender equality strategy.
Women constitute 53% of the population in Belarus. They hold about 34% of seats in parliament, live on average 74 years (11 years longer then men), are well educated, and about 70% of them work outside their household. Is it possible that Belarusian women enjoy equal rights and opportunities and therefore do not relate to the global feminist movement as the WEF indicators suggest?
Some argue that the Soviet Union liberated women in Belarus; it provided them with all the opportunities and services which feminists in the rest of the world had to fight for. Not only did women in Soviet Belarus gain access to education and prestigious professions, they also enjoyed state healthcare, access to childcare, and the right to legal abortion. Most of these rights and services carried over into modern Belarus even after the USSR was dismantled. For instance, Belarusian women continue to enjoy generous maternity benefits.
The flip side of this generous policy presented itself later. In the 1960s, the rest of the world was engaging in ‘second-wave feminism'. Women in the US and Europe started to broach the subjects of domestic violence, marital rape, and the exploitation and control of female sexuality. Meanwhile, the ‘woman question’ appeared to be solved in the USSR and Soviet Belarus. However, as women gained access to education and new professions, they also continued to bear the brunt of housework and caretaking.
Who needs feminism
According to a 2012 sociological survey carried out by the agency NewEffector, neither men nor women in Belarus need feminism. Belarus displayed the lowest level of tolerance towards feminist ideas in comparison with Ukraine and Russia.
Only 4% of women in Belarus – compared with 9% in Ukraine and 7% in Russia – characterised themselves as openly feminist. Moreover, only 6% of men in Belarus claimed to support feminist ideas – compared to 11% in Ukraine and 16% in Russia.
Therefore, feminist ideas remain marginal for both state and oppositional politics. Since early 2000, Belarus has implemented four Gender Equality Action Plans, but all four lacked any measurable indicators or allocated budgets. The outcomes remained intangible and had to be taken at face value from the Ministry’s reports.
I shied away from the word 'feminism' although I have been a feminist for most of my life Read more
Non-governmental actors face backlash if they decide to use the word 'feminist' in their agenda. Irina Solomatina, a Belarusian feminist and activist, recalls a story when certain publishing agencies refused to print their materials because they contained the word 'feminist'. 'A few years ago I attended an exhibit in Moscow entitled "Feminist Karandash." This is when I realised what tremendous pressure the curators and organisers faced for using the word. I decided to fight my inner stereotypes and use the word "feminism" more often.'
The only international body capable of holding the country accountable for women's rights issues and gender equality is the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This is a forum where countries regularly report on their achievement in this sphere. Based on Belarus's official documents, along with shadow reports presented by NGOs and initiatives, the Committee came up with several recommendations.
This year the Committee recommended adopting comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, laws against domestic violence and gender-based violence, and comprehensive attempts to eliminate discriminatory gender stereotypes. As experience from previous years and reports has shown, Belarus adheres minimally to the recommendations, but still manages to look good and rank high in terms of gender equality.
Who are the feminists
The unfortunate reputation of the word ‘feminism’ seems to have scared many people away. But in reality everyone who believes in equal education for boys and girls, voting rights for women and men, and equal pay for equal labour should call themselves feminists, regardless of their gender or their interpretation of feminism. However, few women identify as feminists, and feminist men are almost nonexistent.
Belarusian women do not feel oppressed and men do not see how they propagate the patriarchy. While statistics show that every third woman and every fourth man in Belarus has experienced violence in their lives, no one seems to have connected this to gender inequality and discriminatory stereotypes. Few people have woken up to their oppression, either personally or politically. Abuse remains widespread and tolerated.
Meanwhile, experts point to the emergence of new types of online initiatives in Belarus focusing on gender equality which lack the status of official NGOs. They promote a feminist and gender agenda through online resources. Examples include Makeout.by and gender-route.org. Most importantly, they also embrace LGBTQ communities who remain otherwise highly marginalised in Belarus.
The WEF has calculated that at the current pace of progress, it would take the world around 170 years to close the economic gender gap universally. In Belarus, the gap remains wide. The state reinforces the role of the traditional family, and Belarusian society has not yet identified the need for more equal power distribution among its individual citizens.
Will Russia occupy Belarus in 2017?
Recently, the Russian Ministry of Defence disclosed logistical data of railway traffic to other countries for the upcoming year.
It revealed that the Kremlin is planning to significantly increase the amount of military cargo headed for Belarus.
This may be a sign that Moscow is preparing to redeploy a large number of Russian troops to Belarus in 2017.
A piece by Belarus Digest predicted that the Kremlin is trying to transform Belarus into a flash point for menacing NATO and Ukraine by deploying its military capabilities on Belarusian territory.
Unfortunately, this prediction is corroborated by the aforementioned logistic data, as well as the fruitlessness of the recent meeting between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
The negotiation agenda: two different angles
On 22 – 23 October 2016 Alexander Lukashenko paid a working visit to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss bilateral economic problems. The lack of official comments on the results of the negotiations in Moscow raises some doubts about its real agenda. Moreover, the current state of affairs demonstrates that the Kremlin is unwilling to compromise and will continue to put pressure on Minsk.
Significant economic problems have been accumulating in Moscow-Minsk relations since the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014. The list of grievances includes permanent trade wars and restrictions of Belarusian goods on the Russian market, the gas price dispute and the incomplete delivery of oil to Belarus from Russia, and the sudden implementation of controls on the Belarusian-Russian border.
However, Alexander Surikov, the Russian ambassador to Belarus, announced shortly before the meeting that the two presidents would not be discussing economic problems. According to him, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko would focus on political issues in the changing international context. He did not specify which 'changes' were implied.
Nevertheless, it seems that Putin had already set the political agenda for negotiations with Lukashenko during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Peru on 21 November 2016, one day before the meeting in Moscow. He explained why Russia is so alarmed by NATO’s expansion and stressed that the 'situation is heating up'.
Without doubt, Putin did discuss the current security situation in the region with his Belarusian counterpart. According to Kremlin strategists, upcoming deployments of four NATO battalions in Poland and the Baltic states will undermine the strategic stability of the region.
Putin believes that Belarus must participate in Russia’s military response to NATO’s activities on its Eastern flank Read more
For this reason, Putin believes that Belarus must participate in Russia’s military response to NATO’s activities on its Eastern flank. Part of this response includes the large scale 'Zapad / West 2017' military drills taking place on the territory of Belarus and Kaliningrad next year.
Military drills or occupation?
However, the newly revealed logistical data of Russian military cargo to Belarus illustrate the Kremlin’s far-reaching strategic designs. It seems that Moscow is planning to redeploy a large number of Russian troops on the territory of Belarus for purposes other than military drills.
According to these data, the Russian Ministry of Defence plans to send 4,162 railway carriages to Belarus next year. This would be 33 times more traffic than in 2015, and 83 times more traffic than this year. Some more argue that this increase in flow is connected with the 'Zapad/ West' joint strategic military exercises taking place next September.
However, comparing next year's logistical data with the number of railway carriages coming from Russia in 2013, during the previous 'Zapad' military drills, paints a rather different picture.
The Russian Ministry of Defence sent only 200 railway carriages to Belarus that year. Moreover, almost half of the motorised brigade of the Russian Armed Forces (comprising 2,500 troops) took part in the joint military exercises on the territory of Belarus.
In contrast, next year the Russian Ministry of Defence is planning to send 20 times more railway carriages to Belarus than during previous 'Zapad' drills in 2013. What's more, the Kremlin’s strategists are not required to publish certain military logistic data in open sources. This is a usual practise. Therefore, to get a more realistic idea of the scale of Russian troops’ redeployment to Belarus, the number of railway carriages should be multiplied at least by a factor of 1.5.
This logistical military data indirectly confirms that Russia is going to redeploy a number of troops to Belarus almost equal to the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District, and not simply participate in regular military drills.
Obviously, the Kremlin does not need this many troops for training purposes. A more likely scenario is that Russia plans to transform Belarus into an outpost for military confrontation with NATO. Specifically, Russia may use Belarusian territory in order to generate security threats and challenges to the Baltic states.
the Kremlin must first set up a strategic military presence on the territory of Belarus Read more
In order to accomplish this, the Kremlin must first set up a strategic military presence on the territory of Belarus. Obviously, if this many Russian troops arrive in Belarus, it will be difficult to send them home later. Without doubt, this is detrimental to the sovereignty and independence of the Belarusian state.
Implications of the meeting in Moscow
Notably, this Russian military logistical data appeared in open sources one week prior to Lukashenka's visit to Moscow earlier this month, despite the fact that Belarusian military officials had not yet ironed out the details of next year's 'Zapad' drills with their Russian counterparts.
In this regard, the publication of these data can be seen as a tool to put psychological pressure on Minsk in order to bring Belarus into line with the Kremlin.
Simultaneously, the Russian media launched an information campaign dedicated to Belarus immediately following Lukashenka's visit to Moscow. Even certain federal-level Russian TV channels, such as 'Channel One Russia' and 'Zvezda', reported on the topic of Belarus
Some journalists' stories drew parallels with the situation in Ukraine. According to them, the same fate of destabilisation awaits Belarus, as Western intelligence agencies are preparing a colour revolution to overthrow Alexander Lukashenko.
Other stories focused on the growth of nationalist sentiment and 'Russophobia' in Belarusian society, as well as an outburst of right-wing oppositional political movements and parties. 'Zvezda', the TV channel of the Russian Ministry of Defence, warned explicitly that Alexander Lukashenko could be overthrown by Ukrainian provocateurs and so on.
Belarus Digest has written articles outlining a hypothetical coup scenario in Belarus launched by the Kremlin. According to this sequence of events, Russian-backed sabotage groups could operate as Belarusian nationalists or 'Ukrainian provocateurs'. In another scenario, based on the failed tactics of plotters in Montenegro, Russian agents could also pose as local security forces.
It seems that the Kremlin is preparing Russian public opinion for a serious crisis in Belarusian-Russian relations. The fruitlessness of Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to Moscow also signals that Belarus is refusing to become a Russian military outpost in the event of a confrontation between NATO and the West.
In the future, an intensification of tension and an increase in coercive measures by the Kremlin – should Belarus continue to defend its national sovereignty and independence – is possible. This could even entail a coup attempt and destabilisation as an excuse for the Russian military to intervene in Belarus and instal a fully pro-Kremlin regime in Minsk.
Without a doubt, such a pro-Kremlin regime would acquiesce to however many Russian troops the Kremlin desires on Belarusian territory.
Arseni is the Director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies based in Minsk; he is also a military officer in reserve for the Belarusian Armed Forces.