VILNIUS, LITHUANIA - AUGUST 21: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 37-year-old former teacher and stay-at-home mother turned politician, speaks for the first time in public at a press conference since fleeing Belarus on August 21, 2020 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Exiled opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya made her first public appearance after fleeing Minsk following growing protests after the August 9th contested elections that upheld the 26-year rule of Alexander Lukashenko. (Photo by Arturas Morozovas/Getty Images)
How stay-at-home mom became opposition leader in Belarus
04:04 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

If Americans weren’t consumed with the historic political contest at home, they would be riveted to the drama unfolding in Belarus.

That’s where an unlikely trio of women has led a mass pro-democracy uprising aiming at toppling Alexander Lukashenko, a Soviet-era leader who has held power for more than a quarter-century. The dictator is digging in his heels even as Belarusians in huge numbers fill the streets week after week demanding he allow them to freely choose their President.

Frida Ghitis

The daily events in Belarus, a former Soviet Republic, are worthy of a Netflix drama, full of unexpected twists, spearheaded by heroic protagonists and driven by a righteous cause.

But it’s real life. The stakes could not be higher, and the lessons more poignant for the rest of the world – including for Americans, concerned about their own democracy.

Just this week, one of the protest leaders, Maria Kolesnikova, seemed to vanish. One witness told a local website that she had seen masked men push Kolesnikova into a minibus and drive away.

Kolesnikova was the last of the three opposition leaders who remained in the country after elections on Aug. 9, which Lukashenko claimed he had won in a landslide. The claim was roundly rejected at home and abroad. Poll workers reported being made to sign election result forms even before the vote took place, leaving the vote tally blank apparently to facilitate fraud.

Lukashenko’s main rival for the presidency was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former school teacher who emerged as a formidable candidate when her husband, the original opposition candidate, was arrested. She was joined in the effort by Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband, a former ambassador to the US, was barred from running by the regime.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya

The third in the trio, Kolesnikova, is a former musician who had joined the campaign of another opposition politician whose campaign was also blocked. She became campaign manager for Tikhanovskaya.

Photos of the three beaming women – Tikhanovskaya, Tsepkalo, and Kolesnikova – became a rallying symbol for a population chafing under dictatorship.

Tikhanovskaya said as President, her first act would be to call new, clean elections. Lukashenko became the first post-Soviet President in 1994, in the aftermath of a union with Russia that followed the collapse of the USSR. He never relinquished power. Though he is often called Europe’s last dictator, that moniker is becoming outdated as authoritarian leaders take power in the region.

After the most recent election, when officials announced results deemed by many to have been rigged, Belarusians took to the streets and police responded with violence. Tikhanovskaya was detained for hours, as were several campaign staffers. She had already sent her children into exile for safety. Then she, too, fled to neighboring Lithuania.

Police violence against pro-democracy protesters only served to further delegitimize Lukashenko and energize demonstrations, which have continued bringing to the streets a sea of Belarusians dressed in red and white week after week.

Lukashenko has tried to enlist support from the autocrat next door, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For years Putin has sought to create a federation joining the two countries, and he may yet intervene, but it’s something he wants to avoid. Putin despises democratic revolutions, for obvious self-protective reasons. But intervening to save such an unpopular, illegitimate leader could backfire.

Putin has his own pro-democracy movement to suppress in Russia. In recent weeks, the leader of the Russian opposition, Alexey Navalny, has been fighting for his life in a Berlin hospital after being poisoned. German doctors have identified a nerve agent used in what looks like an assassination attempt. It’s the same chemical used in an assassination attempt against Putin critics in England, which a UK investigation traced to the Russian Military Intelligence Directorate, the GRU.

Putin says he might help Lukashenko, if “the situation gets out of control.”

As for Kolesnikova, the situation has only grown more dramatic. After her disappearance, two colleagues also went missing.

On Tuesday, they surfaced in neighboring Ukraine with an amazing story. They said they had gone to check on Kolesnikova when they were met by men who bundled them into a bus and soon after they were taken to the Belarus-Ukraine border. There, they met Kolesnikova.

The three were pushed into a car where they found their passports. Authorities were presumably trying to deport Kolesnikova, an iconic figure in the democracy movement.

Suddenly, Kolesnikova grabbed her passport and ripped it apart, throwing the pieces out the window. Then she climbed out the window, refusing to be taken away from her country.

The other two sped away toward Ukraine, as Belarusian authorities chased after them. (CNN has not independently confirmed the details of their account.)

The foreign affairs minister of Lithuania, where Tikhanovskaya remains, has called for Kolesnikova’s release, stingingly decrying her abduction as “Stalinist” methods.

To state the obvious, the courage of the people fighting for democracy in Belarus is breathtaking. No less astounding is the bravery of Russia’s Navalny, whose prognosis could be grim, and his supporters. And let’s not forget what is happening in Hong Kong, where millions have taken on the Chinese regime to demand democratic freedoms. Even as their cause looked all but lost, they took to the streets again this weekend.

What makes individuals and communities risk it all against overwhelming odds, taking on powerful, entrenched regimes, in places like Minsk, Hong Kong or Moscow?

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Ironically, the answer helps explain why more people in the United States are not paying closer attention to these revolutions. It turns out, democracy is worth fighting for. But Americans have much on their plates at the moment.

In the US, many believe democracy, too, is at stake, under a President who has flouted democratic norms, abused his power and is using increasingly troubling strategies to hold on to it.

What is happening in the US is nothing compared to what we’re seeing in any of these autocratic countries (America still has a functioning democracy). The heroism of those fighting to bring it to their own lands deserves more attention, not only because their stories are gripping and inspiring, but also because they underscore for the US that Democracy is a terrible thing to lose.