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Belarus Women Continue To Lead Opposition Movement Despite Pandemic And Crackdown

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of this year's surprising stories was the uprising in Belarus. Strongman Alexander Lukashenko has ruled that former Soviet republic since 1994. When he ran for reelection in August and claimed victory, citizens didn't buy it. They believed a political novice, the wife of a jailed activist, had won. So they took to the streets, and they are still out there. And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, women are leading the protests.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Belarus Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka says the protests that began in August in her home country were nothing like she's seen before - hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanding an end to Alexander Lukashenko's 2 1/2 decades-long grip on power.

YELENA LEUCHANKA: I have played in so many countries on so many competitions - Olympics, you know, everything. I was pretty fortunate. But I have never experienced the type of energy in anything like that - this greatness, this this unity.

KELEMEN: Like many of her fellow protesters in Belarus, though, Leuchanka ended up spending 15 days in a flea-ridden and cramped jail cell.

LEUCHANKA: I just laid there because I think I was still in shock. And the next thing I hear are woman singing "Kupalinka." It's Belarus songs that women, when they go in the marches, and they sing these songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in non-English language).

KELEMEN: Here's one of the videos of women at the forefront of protests in Belarus. They hold flowers and gather weekly in defiance of President Lukashenko's crackdown. The Olympic athlete Leuchanka managed to leave Belarus for Greece, but one of her cellmates was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for trying to tear off a policeman's balaclava at a protest.

LEUCHANKA: It's like at the time, you just realize that you there not because you did something. It's not there because you committed a crime. You're there because you're fighting for freedom and the spirit of people. I mean, I was so amazed.

KELEMEN: The WNBA center told her story at an online event hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. It's run by former ambassador-at-large for Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer.

MELANNE VERVEER: The face of what is happening in Belarus is largely the face of women, unexpected in a region largely male-dominated consistently, certainly in politics. And the struggle, I think, needed to be spotlighted.

KELEMEN: The protests continue, though key leaders of the opposition have been jailed or forced into exile.

VERVEER: It's the kind of story real life that is happening in our world that I think we need to know about, care about and act on.

KELEMEN: State Department officials have met with the woman many believe won the election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Congress recently weighed in with legislation to support the protesters. But Verveer says President Trump's effort to overturn his own election laws has tarnished America's image.

VERVEER: I think it does, not just undermine our credibility, but our ability to promote democratic values, to promote democracy, to be what we have always claimed to be.

KELEMEN: Still, the women of Belarus are looking to the U.S. for support, and they have high hopes for President-elect Biden, according to activist Natalia Kaliada of the Belarus Free Theatre. She also spoke at the Georgetown event.

NATALIA KALIADA: We definitely do think that Biden's administration will be absolutely different to Trump administration.

KELEMEN: She says Biden will have an early chance to show his support because opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya is planning to come to Washington around the inauguration.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.