The female voice of change

The female voice of change
The campaign to oust Belarus' authoritarian president was led by three women – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow March 8, 2021

Two years ago Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid was dismissed as an “emotionally fired-up woman” by then interior minister Mart Helme, of the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (ERKE), when she refused to attend the swearing-in of EKRE’s Marti Kuusik, who had been accused of domestic violence, as technology and foreign trade minister. In the president’s absence, Kuusik was left to salute an empty chair. Just over a year later, Kaljulaid made a personal apology to Finland’s youthful female Prime Minister Sanna Marin when Helme mocked her as a “sales girl”. 

But at the start of 2021, the government EKRE had been a junior partner in collapsed in a corruption scandal, and with the appointment of Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas at the head of a grand coalition Estonia became the only country in the world currently led by a female president and prime minister (and one of only three ever). Not only that, but including the prime minister herself Kallas’ cabinet includes seven female minsters, or 46.7% of the total, a record high for Estonia.

With Kallas’ appointment, the emerging Europe region now accounts for around one third of all the female heads of state or government worldwide, just 23 in total, according to the US-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which publishes the Women’s Power index tracking female participation in politics. Aside from Kaljulaid and Kallas, the list includes the prime ministers of Lithuania Ingrida Simonyte and Serbia Ana Brnabic, the presidents of Slovakia Zuzana Caputova, Moldova Maia Sandu and Georgia Salome Zourabichvili, as well as (not included in the CFR’s list of 23 female leaders) Kosovo’s acting President Vjosa Osmani, the most likely candidate to become the next president of the country. 

Having more women in power can help improve the quality of government by promoting bipartisanship, equality and stability, according to the CFR. This comes on top of the way female politicians can encourage gender equality by promoting it directly, as well as through policies that help women to play a full role in public life in areas such as health, education and childcare. 

The CFR’s report points out that when women hold public office they may still face institutional structures and political systems that limit their ability to influence policy, and on top of that being the first woman elected to a leadership position “often means navigating previously male-dominated structures, which can translate into political caution rather than policy change”. Only when women reach a critical mass of around 25-30% of legislatures are they more likely to challenge conventions and policy agendas. 

While there have been female leaders before in the CEE region, what is significant about the current wave of appointments over the last couple of years is that several have come to power on an agenda for change and specifically anti-corruption, taking over from the male-dominated parties that have become entrenched in their countries and not being afraid to speak in explicitly feminist terms. 

Zuzana Caputova, an environmental lawyer nicknamed “Slovakia’s Erin Brockovich”, became the country’s first-ever female president in 2019. She defeated Maros Sefcovic, the candidate supported by the Smer-SD party that had been in power from 2006 to 2018 aside from a two-year stint in opposition in 2010-2012. Caputova’s victory came as Slovakians sought a radical change in domestic politics after the murders of Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova the previous year. The killings, which have been linked to Kuciak’s final investigation, sparked mass protests in Slovakia that brought down the coalition government headed by former prime minister Robert Fico of Smer-SD. 

New female leaders from outside the political establishment have since come to power in Moldova and Kosovo and had the August 2020 election not been rigged and post-election protests brutally suppressed, another would now be in power in Belarus too. 

In Moldova, Sandu, leader of the pro-EU Party of Action and Solidarity, lost to Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon in the 2016 presidential election, only to reverse the result in the second race between the two in 2020. Sandu’s liberal politics and anti-corruption stance are in strong contrast to those of Dodon, an old school politician supported by Moscow, who sought to outflank his opponent by appealing to his conservative base. 

Sandu took part in the NO means NO march organised by the Group of Feminist Initiatives of Moldova in 2017, telling journalists she wanted to raise public awareness of violence and rape. "During the election campaign, I felt offended by the statements of some politicians precisely because I am a woman. I have been subjected to absurd criticism and discrimination by some opponents. Everyone was able to see who Igor Dodon is, his misogynistic, xenophobic and homophobic attitude, but at the same time, we saw a society that was ready to vote for a woman against the ugly things some candidates said during this campaign,” Sandu told 

Kosovo’s Osmani also faced misogynistic comments when she ran in the February general election. A former lawyer and law professor who has written on feminist issues, Osmani was a member of the long-established Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) but was expelled from the party when she refused to vote down Albin Kurti’s government in 2020 after the LDK withdrew its backing.

Ahead of the February general election, Interior Minister Agim Veliu said he didn't know that Osmani was "so big that she needs a space as big as the presidency [of the LDK]” a comment widely seen as body shaming. Osmani’s adviser Ednesa Vitia wrote on Facebook that Veliu’s comment was a “disgusting” example of "bullying" and “misogyny”, reported RFE/RL. The country has had one female president, Atifete Jahjaga, but no female head of government, and Kurti’s first cabinet was unusual in including as many as six women, making it the most gender-balanced to date.

Now a prominent figure in Kosovan politics, Osmani has spoken out on gender issues. “Every single law that comes to the assembly should be seen through the gender lens,” she said in an interview with Al Jazeera in 2020, shortly after she became Kosovo’s first female parliament speaker.

“[T]he government programme, which we drafted together, focuses quite a lot in creating such conditions for women in our society to find a job and get economically empowered,” Osmani said in 2020 when the LDK was part of the ruling coalition alongside Kurti’s Vetevendosje. In an earlier interview with AFP, Osmani said her gender was an asset. “I can do it because I am a woman,” she told the newswire. 

Kljulaid has also spoken about the gender-based discrimination she faced in the past, for example telling BuzzFeed News in 2018 that when serving as a diplomat she had been mistaken for a translator. “There are challenges, not only for me but all my female colleagues … Quite often, I mean, you get pushed aside and you really have to stand up for yourself,” Kljulaid told MSNBC in March 2020. 

Protest leaders

Women have been at the forefront of protest movements recently, notably against the right-wing Polish government under which abortion was virtually outlawed in 2020, as well as against Belarus’ self-declared President Alexander Lukashenko. 

Mass protests erupted in Poland in October when the country’s Constitutional Tribunal effectively said that women need to carry all pregnancies to term that are not the result of rape or incest, or if they threaten the woman’s life. The ruling PiS had stacked the tribunal with loyalists, making it effectively a government body. The protests were large and widespread across Poland, even in cities and towns that traditionally gave the incumbent right-wing government support. 

In Belarus, with credible male opponents to Lukashenko pushed out of the race before the August 2020 presidential election, the campaign to oust the country’s long-serving authoritarian president was led by three women presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, the campaign manager and wife respectively of eliminated candidates Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo. 

After the election in which independent observers say Tikhanovskaya took the largest share of the vote protests continued even after Lukashenko declared himself the victor and re-inaugurated himself for another term. Women’s marches against Lukashenko were organised, but women were prominent in all the protests. Among them were 74-year-old protester Nina Bahinskaya, who fearlessly defied OMON officers, becoming an icon of the protest movement. 

However, the trend towards an increased female leadership at the top of politics isn’t limited to parties that challenge the political establishment. In autumn 2020, first Serbia then Lithuania announced gender-balanced cabinets led by female prime ministers. 

Serbia’s government is led by Brnabic, a close ally of President Aleksandar Vucic, whose Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has been in government since 2012 and has virtually eliminated the parliamentary opposition. Addressing the Serbian parliament on October 28, the day her new government was voted in by MPs, Brnabic announced that her cabinet would have 21 departments and two ministers without portfolios with “as many as 11 women ministers who will lead some of the most complex departments in the government”. 

In Lithuania, Simonyte was appointed prime minister weeks after Brnabic formed her second government. Simonyte, an independent candidate closely linked to the conservative Homeland Union, installed a government that had a balance of male and female cabinet members, and lowered the average age of ministers considerably. Speaking to Reuters after her election victory, Simonyte said: “I want to show, by the example of myself and my female colleagues, that not only men can be at the top, but also women.”

Still lagging the West

Despite the emergence of female leaders, women's participation in governments and parliaments across the region still lags behind Western Europe.

"Female representation in positions of decision making and power is increasing in Eastern Europe and definitely we see more women being elected to the highest level posts. However, I would still stress that the Eastern Europe region is lagging behind Western Europe and the rest of the world in that respect," says Ekaterina R. Rashkova, assistant professor at the Utrecht School of Governance, Utrecht University. 

"One thing that stands out is that there are more women appointed to ministries that are generally believed to be male portfolios, like the finance ministry or foreign ministry, by political parties on the right of the spectrum. This is different from what we have seen in Western Europe and other established democracies," Rashkova adds. 

Albania, while led by a male prime minister, has the highest share of number of women in its cabinet in the emerging Europe region, at 53% of the total, according to the Women’s Power Index. 

Meanwhile, quotas have helped increase the number of women in parliaments across the region, as well as alternative measures such as preference votes in Latvia and changes to party financing rules in Romania. Yet the countries with the highest share of female MPs are almost all in Western Europe. 

Communist legacy 

The legacy of the socialist era is a mixed one. Women entered the workforce in large numbers, but then had the double burden of working as well as doing most of the housework and child care. Women were formally given equal rights to men, and quotas ensured their participation in politics, yet few reached high levels of power.

"Gender equality is taken to mean something different in the East than it does in the West, specifically because of the long period of communism, during which equality was imposed. There were plenty of women in the communist parliaments, but even then there was a difference in the kind of powers women and men would get," says Rashkova. 

“Historically, communism advocated women’s education, employment and abortion rights, although severely limited political rights and civil liberties. The politics of sexuality and gender were, in many ways, more progressive than in the West … Yet access to politics was limited,” Anna Gwiazda, reader in comparative politics in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London tells bne IntelliNews. Gwiazda also points out that the “emancipation from above” during the socialist era held back women’s political activism. 

“More than thirty years after the fall of communism … On the one hand, there has been growing awareness concerning women’s political representation and the need for gender equality in the context of systemic transformation, internationalisation and Europeanisation. On the other hand, illiberalism, populism and democratic backsliding have taken hold of the region,” says Gwiazda. “Core aspects of liberal democracy including rights and freedoms have been threatened: democratic backsliding is taking place. A conservative backlash and vocal anti-feminist and anti-gender movements pose a challenge to progressive forces.” 

While there are prospects for more women in leadership positions, progress has been slow, and Gwiazda believes that political parties are central to the inclusion of more women in parliaments. In Hungary, which has the lowest share of female MPs in the region, “political parties select a much lower share of female candidates, and women are often placed in unwinnable single member districts and list positions,” she says. “Although voters do not seem inclined to discriminate at the ballot box, the gendered nature of political parties leads to low female representation.”

Dynastic succession in Central Asia

If women have struggled to reach top positions in politics in Central and Eastern Europe, it has been an even tougher battle in Central Asia and the Caucasus. 

In some ways post-socialist Eurasia followed a similar path to Eastern Europe, with the same state-led promotion of women during the socialist era followed by a slump in female representation in the early-post independence parliaments the share of female MPs fell to the low single digits in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which then recovered in the 21st century. A 2020 report, Equal Future, from the UNDP looking at women’s political representation in Central Asia reports “modest gains” over the past 25 years, partly as a result of parliamentary quotas.

Marianne Kamp, director of undergraduate studies and associate professor at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global & International Studies at Indiana University, talks of a “huge retrenchment of women rights and prominence in the 1990s, that is partly because state support for many things went away and women’s opportunities dried up as a result … then we see an important shift, a conscious one, in the Central Asian states around 2005-2007, where political leaders started to adopt quotas for women in Parliament.” This resulted in an increase in the number of female MPs, and at the same time opened up a debate about the role of women.

Another way that Central Asia differs from the rest of emerging Europe is that power is concentrated in the hands of one (male) president in almost every country, and politics is deeply enmeshed with family and clan. For years the presence of ageing male autocrats in Central Asia meant succession was constantly discussed. One dynastic transfer of power had already happened in Azerbaijan where the current President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father on his death in 2003. In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rakhmon is widely believed to be grooming his eldest son Rustam Emomali to take over the presidency. 

The first presidents of both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov, both had three daughters and no sons, leading to debate as to whether a woman could take over the presidency of either of those countries. As it happened, the once immensely powerful eldest daughter of Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, dubbed the “robber baron” in leaked US embassy cables, disappeared from public life apparently under house arrest, and in 2017 was sentenced for fraud and money laundering. In Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, was removed from the position of Senate speaker, which placed her as first in line for the presidency in the event of current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev being removed from power, in May 2020. The development laid to rest some of the speculation that Dariga was being primed as the “true successor” to Nazarbayev, with Tokayev holding a transitory role. Yet Nazarbayeva remained on the ruling Nur-Otan party’s list for the 2021 parliament election. 

In Tajikistan, the president’s eldest daughter, Ozoda Rakhmon, serves as his chief of staff, while in Azerbaijan Aliyev’s wife Mehriban Aliyeva is an influential member of the political establishment who was appointed first vice-president following a referendum to establish the position in 2017. 

“In Central Asia one often gets one’s opening in political or positions of influence through one's kinship or other connection networks. This may be more obvious for women but it’s equally true for men. Men are not rising up because they engage in politically equal battles so much as because they often have an entree into a position based on connections first,” says Kamp. 

However, she adds, “even though they have entrees based on connections they still have to be skilled. Women politicians in Central Asia are not merely symbolic, they are skilled political actors.”

She describes the idea that a woman would become president by inheriting the position as "anathema" to many in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. “People do not want to see the president’s daughter, the former president’s daughter or the current president’s daughter, take over. In general, if people could speak freely they would say they don’t want to see the president’s son take over either, but part of this is a gendered discourse and that may actually be detrimental to the political careers of other women.” The threat of a dynastic succession “might push a lot of people to say they don’t want to see women in positions of leadership and might make it harder for any other woman to become president.”

That said, there have been two female presidents in post-communist Eurasia: interim president Roza Otunbayeva in Kyrgyzstan in 2010-2011 as well as Zourabichvili in Georgia. There are also other women in high positions, among them the chair of Uzbekistan’s senate, Tanzila Norbaeva, and Turkmenistan’s parliament speaker, Akja Nurberdyeva. Kamp notes that Norbaeva in many ways followed a typical career path for women in politics in the region, holding positions related to female and family affairs, but successfully managed to move from one position to another, each time expanding her sphere of influence. “To go from there to become deputy prime minister and then speaker of the senate suggests a lot of talent, because that’s not the usual path to those positions,” she says.

The pursuit of an openly feminist agenda is still difficult in the economically developed EU members of Central Europe, where discussion of gender issues has become extremely politically charged, and even more so in the more traditional societies of post-Soviet Central Asia. 

“I don’t really see prominent women political leaders [in Central Asia] overtly embracing a feminist agenda,” Kamp says. However, she adds, there are examples of women in power helping other women; for example, the Uzbek parliament is now looking at better approaches to the problem of domestic violence. It is more common for female politicians to push for pro-family policies such as better healthcare or childcare provision that have a broader appeal, and a better chance of getting the male support needed to have such measures approved. 

The exception is Kyrgyzstan, which after three revolutions has numerous independent political parties and open debates on a much broader range of topics than in its neighbours. “In Kyrgyzstan women members of parliament really pushed the feminist agenda on things like measures to get rid of bride kidnapping and measures against polygamy,” says Kamp.

Into the pandemic 

2020 was a year unlike any other, and in emerging Europe as elsewhere in the world much of the burden fell on women who have borne the brunt of childcare and home schooling while also working from home. Surveys from many parts of the world have also shown increases in domestic violence, already a concern in many emerging European countries, during the lockdowns.

Gender has been an emotive issue in Central and Eastern Europe, with debates over ratification of the Istanbul convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence raging in several countries, and the so-called illiberal democrats waging war against trans rights and the teaching of gender studies. The Hungarian government took advantage of the emergency powers granted during the pandemic to pursue its agenda by banning adoption by same-sex couples and making it impossible for transgender people to legally change their gender. The Polish authorities apparently hoped that the surge in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases at the time when the ban on most abortions was announced would prevent protests; they were wrong. 

Yet at the same time as the pandemic and lockdowns have eroded women’s rights, the last year has also seen the emergence of strong female voices pushing for change whether it is free elections in Belarus, curbing corruption in Moldova or the right to abortion in Poland.