How Eva, a $1.8 million portrait, became a symbol of protest
Arms folded and her lips sardonically askew, Eva makes an unlikely icon for the protest movement. The portrait by the Jewish expressionist painter Chaim Soutine has swirled into the eye of a political storm.Updated: Jun 30, 2020 21:58 IST
Arms folded and her lips sardonically askew, Eva makes an unlikely icon for the protest movement that’s shaking Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko ahead of presidential elections. For starters, “she” is an almost century-old oil painting.Yet the portrait by the Jewish expressionist painter Chaim Soutine has swirled into the eye of a political storm. The banker responsible for buying it in 2013 -- for a cool $1.8 million at auction in New York -- is running for president from jail to try to end Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
As chief executive of Belgazprombank, the Belarusian lender owned by Russia’s natural gas giant Gazprom PJSC and Gazprombank JSC, Viktor Babariko spent a decade hunting for paintings by Belarus-born artists to bring home and display to the public. He resigned from the bank in May to announce his candidacy for the Aug. 9 elections and was detained on June 18 amid a state security service probe into tax evasion and money laundering.
Shortly before his arrest, the authorities also seized the $20 million art collection built up by Babariko at the bank’s gallery in the capital, Minsk. When protests erupted, social media exploded with Eva’s image and more and more people began to wear it on T-shirts.
Lukashenko has routinely crushed public dissent since winning power in 1994 and he retains an iron grip on the former Soviet republic’s institutions and security services. While defeat at the polls is all but inconceivable as he seeks a sixth presidential term, he’s facing unusually robust opposition this time that prompted him to complain last week of a “foreign” plot to foment revolution.
On Monday, state-owned media cited the five-time president’s warning of the dangers surrounding the country and by implication the risks involved in handing power to less experienced hands.
“If we take just one incautious step, we will collapse under the rubble of disagreements, conflicts and empires,” Lukashenko told officials at a televised meeting in Soligorsk, 80 miles south of the capital Minsk, according to the Belta news agency.
There’s a growing perception within Belarus that something significant has changed in the nation of 9.4 million bordering Russia, Ukraine and the European Union that’s long been known for its political docility. Strategically located between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization states of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus risks becoming the latest focus of a geopolitical struggle between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West.
Previous dips in Lukashenko’s popularity never coincided “with elections, economic recession, a coronavirus pandemic and lack of money to appease angry voters who are rapidly becoming politically active,” says Artyom Shraibman, founder of Minsk-based political consultancy Sense Analytics. He added that the government was doing all it could to suppress the current wave of discontent before August.
The belief, long held even among many opponents, that Lukashenko would win free and fair elections if he ever let them be held is no longer taken as a given. Protest slogans declare “3%” or “We Are The 97%” after -- highly self-selecting -- online surveys found minimal popular support for the president. Confronting a group of opposition protesters in person recently, Lukashenko asked them to stop using the “3%” figure, suggesting they must know it to be false.
Another presumption now questioned is that Belarusians would never go into the streets to topple a leader in the way that other ex-Soviet nations -– from Armenia to Ukraine -– have done since gaining independence in 1991.
Actress Yulia Shevchuk says that she’d finally had enough when she saw Eva and the other paintings had been replaced by posters with QR codes on the walls of Belgazprombank’s gallery. She Googled Soutine’s portrait and doctored it with a painting app to post on Facebook. Eva was now showing her middle finger.
“It was so hard for me to see all this lawlessness, so painful to see the people and the country being appropriated by a single person,” says Shevchuk. Eva’s picture, tweaked by other Belarus netizens to show her looking from behind bars, dressed in prison uniform or led away by the security services (the main branch is still called KGB) began to pop up everywhere.
Lukashenko hinted after Babariko’s arrest that unfriendly circles in Russia were behind his candidacy. The claim’s impact was undermined by the fact that arresting the president’s opponents has become routine ahead of elections in Belarus, even if in the past they were alleged to have been in cahoots with Western powers, rather than Russia.
“Someone thinks that Belarusians are his serfs, who can be pushed around,” Babariko said in a video statement before he was arrested together with his son, who was helping to run his campaign. He denies any ties to Moscow.
In another change, this time it isn’t just the usual suspects in the urban middle classes who appear fed up with their president.Lukashenko’s other main election challenge comes from a blogger named Sergei Tikhonovskiy, who calls Lukashenko a cockroach -- an insect best known locally for the Soviet-era children’s poem in which it terrorizes an animal kingdom. Tikhonovskiy took to touring small-town Belarus communities that are traditionally loyal to the president with a giant bug-killing slipper on his car roof.
He was jailed before he could even officially register his election campaign team. His wife Svetlana now aims to register and run for office on his behalf. She posted an emotional video address on June 16 alleging threats were made against her children unless she pulled out of the race.Lukashenko has been fighting fires for some time. First came a dispute with Russia last year which demanded he agree to a closer political union in return for economic support, including discounted oil and gas. For more than a quarter-century, those de facto subsidies allowed him to avoid the kinds of wrenching post-Soviet economic reforms that contributed to political upheaval elsewhere.The two countries are again arguing over a natural-gas price and Russia effectively halted oil deliveries in January, prompting Belarus to look for alternative supplies as far away as the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Norway.
Belarus had made a profitable industry out of processing cheap Russian crude for export at world market prices, but proceeds from sales of petroleum products plunged by 62% in the first four months of 2020 amid slumping oil demand. With the economy in recession, Lukashenko this month swapped his banker prime minister for a weapons chief, heralding military-style mobilization for an economy that faces multiple challenges.
Lukashenko’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak was the final straw for some. Belarus never declared a lockdown and people were left to choose whether to wear masks, self-isolate or live their lives as usual. The president consistently downplayed the risks, at one point advocating vodka and saunas to combat the disease, and he insisted on holding a May 9 military parade to mark the end of World War II even as Russia postponed its own event.Babariko has campaigned on the economy, warning that Belarus has grown so reliant on foreign support it may soon lose its independence. He has also floated the possibility of seeking military neutrality for a country that’s currently part of a defense alliance with Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. He pledges to revitalize the state-owned sector, support private business and restore the balance of power between branches of government.
In a nation anxious to avoid the kind of hostilities with Moscow seen across the border in Ukraine, Lukashenko’s portrayals of Babariko as a puppet for outside forces seem to have had little impact. Belarus has no reliable public opinion polls, so the true extent of a candidate’s support is hard to measure. Yet Babariko quickly collected 435,000 signatures to register his candidacy, more than four times the number required.
Lukashenko himself has always stressed Russia’s position as a strategic ally even at times of strain. He joined Putin in Moscow to watch Russia’s delayed WWII parade on June 24, but on returning promptly accused Russia of meddling in his country’s elections, a charge the Kremlin denied.With Babariko himself cut off from the world and unable to campaign, his team have called on Belarusians to show support for him and other detainees by writing letters to them in prison. The call, issued on Instagram, was illustrated with a postcard of Eva.
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)