The Female Lead – Building a Legacy of Democracy

What do Olena Zelenska, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Yulia Navalnaya have in common? Besides all three coming from the former USSR, their husbands are among the people that Vladimir Putin fears the most. This has led these women, with no prior experience, to enter the domestic and international political scene, and to advocate for freedom, democracy and international support to their countries in continuation of their husbands’ work.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, now an habitué of the Berlaymont, high level meetings and international conferences, was a name we never heard of before 2020. The wife of Belarusian blogger and political activist Syarhey Tsikhanouski, Sviatlana stood in for her husband in the Presidential electoral race of 2020 following his arrest and prohibition from running as a candidate. Dismissed by Lukashenka as a non-threat, she managed to gather an unprecedented level of support, so much so that when the Belarusian autocrat declared he was the winner of the elections—claiming more than 80% of votes—people poured into the streets to denounce electoral fraud and announce Tsikhanouskaya as their legitimate President.

Faced with the threat of losing his longstanding ally – some may say puppet – Putin accepted Lukanshenka’s plea to help him hold on to power, by making, however, Belarus a de facto satellite state of Russia. Facing prison or exile, Sviatlana chose the latter by establishing a Belarusian opposition HQ in Lithuania and advocating for the release of political prisoners, sanctions on the Lukashenka regime, constitutional reform and new, free and fair elections in her country, all acts for which she has gained international recognition. She carries forward the mission started by Syarhey Tsikhanouski, sentenced in 2021 to 18 years in prison, by lending her voice to the opponents of the regime and the Belarusian people. In 2023, Tsikhanouskaya was sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia.

Olena Zelenska came onto the international scene in 2019 as the First Lady of Ukraine, after her husband Volodymyr Zelensky became the country’s sixth President. Her initial goal during her mandate was to support humanitarian causes, gender equality and equal opportunities, with initiatives such as Barrier Free Ukraine and others.

In February of 2022, however, her life and that of her compatriots changed dramatically. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and her husband being on the Kremlin’s death list, Olena Zelenska, initially sheltered in a high security hiding place, later embarked on numerous trips to speak about the immense and growing human costs of Russia’s full-scale invasion and to ask for support for her country. She met with countless heads of state and governments, gave numerous interviews and spoke in major international fora on behalf of Ukraine’s President and its people, to keep Ukraine high on the agenda and ask for what the country needs the most at the moment – weapons. Zelenska became the first spouse of a foreign leader to address a joint session of Congress and as the President is busy leading the military operations, the First Lady executes her diplomatic duties with great efficiency.

In 2022 the Olena Zelenska Foundation was launched with the goal of restoring the human capital of Ukraine as well as the reconstruction of medical and educational institutions. Now, in February 2024 as the war entered its third year, and as Western support sometimes wobbles, the First Lady keeps sending her message loud and clear in the hope it will be heard and addressed- war in Ukraine is about more than Ukraine—it is about who will uphold the values of the West and the postwar rules-based order.

Yulia Navalnaya, a woman whose name we heard countless times in the past two weeks, is the most sought-after figure by Western leaders and media  since the death of her husband Alexei Navalny under suspicious circumstances on 16th February at the Arctic pole penal colony IK-3 . Putin’s harshest critic, he exposed high-level corruption within Russia’s government and became an opposition figure, giving hope to many for a possibility of freedom and democracy within the Russian Federation.

Navalny had previously survived poisoning attempts and years in jail, ultimately paying the highest price for his values and ideals. After the shocking news, Yulia Navalnaya, who has always stood by her husband behind the scenes, decided to take centerstage, moments after the death of Alexei was announced to the world. In an Instagram video posted on Navalny’s account she accuses Putin of killing Alexei and addresses her fellow Russians urging them to fight against the regime, to take to the streets and stand against war, corruption, impunity and for free and democratic elections. Taking up her husband’s cross, Yulia pledged to continue Alexei’s fight against the Putin regime, hoping to become a unifying figure for the opposition.

The ultimate thing that Olena Zelenska, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Yulia Navalnaya have in common is love for their countries, freedom and democracy. In different ways they give voice to the ideas and commitments of their partners, all of whom strive or strived to see their homelands free from war and actions of the Kremlin autocratic regime and its proxies. Their boldness and courage show us also how much we need women in diplomacy, foreign affairs and international security. The participation of women, on equal terms with men and at all levels of decision-making, is essential to the achievement of sustainable development, peace and democracy.

As we nervously await the upcoming elections in Russia, the EU and the US among other states in the biggest election year in history, it is painfully clear that any result can tip the scale towards a more democratic or autocratic world. In times like these we should look at Zelenska, Tsikhanouskaya and Navalnaya, acknowledge their sacrifice and understand that our democratic freedoms cannot be taken for granted. Only by standing together against oppression, corruption, and autocracy, can we honour the work of those who fight every day for democracy to thrive.