Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka took to the podium in Minsk early this month -- shortly after his government disqualified three strong rivals in the upcoming presidential election -- to assuage fears that his iron grip over the country was under threat.
Facing a hall packed with maskless officials, he called Belarus an island of stability in an unstable world and defended his consistent dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic as a "psychosis" curable by vodka-fueled sessions in the sauna.
He then turned to the opposition campaign against his reelection -- headed by the wives of two of his jailed rivals and the former campaign manager of the third -- and pronounced the women unwitting pawns of Western puppet masters intent on sowing instability in Belarus.
"These three unfortunate little girls were found," he said of Maryya Kalesnikava, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and Veranika Tsapkala. "They don't understand what they say and what they do. But we can see who stands behind them."
But it was already clear that Belarus's strongman leader since 1994 was facing the biggest political challenge of his life. And the irony was that, after years of macho showmanship aimed at shoring up his conservative support base, this challenge was being mounted by the very contingent of Belarusian society he had long belittled: women.
An election commission that analysts say is answerable to Lukashenka alone sanctioned Tsikhanouskaya's registration, apparently convinced that her lack of political experience and her gender would delegitimize her candidacy in the eyes of a public accustomed to the strongman's gruff political style.
"The president will be a man," Lukashenka told workers during a visit to the Minsk Tractor Factory on May 29. "Our constitution was not written for women. And our society isn't ready to vote for a woman."
Now, with the country riven by protests over an election deemed rigged and many calling on Lukashenka to concede defeat to Tsikhanouskaya, that doesn't seem so sure.
"He barred all real competitors who posed a significant threat," said Tadeusz Giczan, an expert on Belarusian politics at King's College London. "But in an attempt to allow some genuine opposition to run, to legitimize this election, he decided to allow the weakest candidate, Tsikhanouskaya. That was his biggest mistake."
In the weeks leading up to the August 9 vote, the female opposition trio led by Tsikhanouskaya hosted rallies attended by tens of thousands of people across the country, pushing a simple demand for fair elections that resonated with a society fed up by years of economic stagnation and a lack of alternatives.
It was a stunning ascent by a woman who had given up a career as an English teacher to become a stay-at-home mother for her two children and had never experienced the campaign spotlight before.
"She had no political capital when she registered," said Katsyaryna Shmatsina, a research fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies. "No one could foresee she'd be able to consolidate so much of voters' support in such a short time."
But when the ballots were counted and the election commission announced that Lukashenka had garnered 80 percent of the vote, the protests only intensified: the result was widely dismissed as rigged and evidence from independent exit polls suggested Tsikhanouskaya had won -- meaning the woman whom Lukashenka had disparaged as a pointless rival was being proclaimed the rightful president-elect.
A 'Strong Hand'?
It was a fierce indictment of the testosterone-fueled image that Lukashenka, a former collective farm manager, had embraced since his election in 1994, when a society rocked by the collapse of the Soviet Union sought a strong hand to stabilize the country.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Nicknamed "Batka" -- Father -- he routinely made a point of rebuffing Moscow's attempts to integrate Belarus further into its orbit and presided in his first years over a steadily growing GDP.
When, amid economic stagnation compounded by the effects of the global recession, his popularity plummeted from some 60 percent in the mid-2000s to a mere 20 percent, he seized on the Ukraine crisis of 2014-15 to shore up support by pledging to safeguard Belarus's sovereignty against the perceived Russian threat.
During that time, according to a joint investigation by Russian and Belarusian media, Lukashenka, 65, presided over the Miss Belarus pageant and drafted many of its winners into various positions in his presidential service.
In a meeting with trainee diplomats in Minsk in October 2019, he described these women as his "weapon" in tense negotiations. "I raise my head -- there go my beauties, one white, another black," he said. "Everyone forgets about everything, opens their mouths, and stares at them."
But the locker-room humor backfired this year when Lukashenka dismissed the growing coronavirus pandemic and ridiculed its first victims in Belarus as obese. On May 9, he forged ahead with an extravagant military parade to mark 75 years since the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, to the incredulity of foreign observers.
"There are no viruses here," he told reporters after a hockey game in Minsk in late March. Since then, Belarus has officially recorded 70,000 coronavirus cases, among the world's highest per capita rates, and last month Lukashenka himself announced he'd survived the virus without symptoms.
"Everyone expected him to take decisive action. That's why he's called 'Batka,'" Giczan of King's College said. "But when the actual threat came, he simply said, 'I don't care.'"
Now, as protests against his rule continue, there are indications that that red-blooded, devil-may-care attitude is finally losing its allure, even among the segments of the population whose backing he traditionally enjoyed.
"He simply cannot keep up with the times," Giczan said. "That's one of the reasons his support base has narrowed so much."
On August 17, the morning after a rally urging his ouster gathered an estimated 200,000 people in Minsk, Lukashenka arrived by helicopter at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant in a bid to reenergize the support of workers, whom he'd always considered his most robust, core electorate.
"I'll tell you man-to-man, the worst thing in life is betrayal," he said. Met with jeers, he warned of further violence if protests continued and said striking workers would not be welcomed back.
"You, working people,... have always supported the president," he told them. "No!" came the reply.
Outside the factory entrance, a large crowd chanted, "Get Lukashenka into a prison truck!"
Public-opinion polling has been banned in Belarus since 2016. But the vast crowds baying for Lukashenka's resignation across the country, analysts say, are a testament to how far his support has slipped -- a downward trajectory that even his trusty, old-fashioned hubris cannot reverse.
"Lukashenka's support hit a record low this year," Shmatsina said. "It was low before the elections, but now it is irreversibly lost. He has exhausted his legitimacy in the eyes of the population."