By Dylan Rogers
After an eventful year in which Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko illegally downed a plane carrying a dissident blogger and orchestrated a migrant crisis on Europe’s eastern border, I talked to democratic opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (GS’21).
Tsikhanouskaya never intended to become the face of free Belarus. She spent her childhood summers in Ireland, on a special program for children from the fallout zone of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, improving her English before training to become a full time English teacher, a career she later set aside to help her deaf son learn to speak.
Her entry into politics was unlikely. After her husband Sergey was arrested for launching a presidential campaign critical of the Lukashenko regime, Tsikhanouskaya decided to run in his stead. Her platform was simple, but her promise was rebirth for a country often described as Europe’s last dictatorship. Indeed her rallies were resplendent in red and white, the colors of the short-lived 1918 Belarusian Republic.
Tsikhanouskaya likely won the election that followed, though she was unable to celebrate her success. Lukashenko responded by forcing his main rival into exile and launching an unprecedented crackdown that saw many of her closest allies imprisoned.
In the 16 months since Tsikhanouskaya has matured from a reluctant revolutionary to an internationally recognised President-Elect. Yet she still speaks in a clear and earnest voice that belies her apolitical origins. Perhaps that’s why Lukashenko is so scared of her: Tsikhanouskaya could be almost anyone. Almost.
You spent your childhood in Mikashevichi, a small Southern Belarusian town in the fallout zone of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. What was growing up there like? Did you ever dream of becoming the prominent international politician you are today?
I never intended to be a politician. And even now I am not a traditional politician – I had to take this place instead of my husband, who was imprisoned for no reason. I just express the will of the Belarusian people and convey it to politicians, journalists – and through them – to the whole world. We just need to achieve the release of political prisoners, stop the violence in our country and hold real elections. We must restore justice.
I grew up in an ordinary family – dad is a driver, mom is a cook. They taught me that you have to be responsible for your words and deeds and respect the people among whom you live. I had a good happy childhood – in a loving and friendly family. I read books, went to school. I studied well.
“I grew up in an ordinary family – dad is a driver, mom is a cook.”
Mikashevichi is a small town. I saw that when I first arrived in Minsk, and then spent the summer in Ireland under a program to help children affected by the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. It was bright and unforgettable.
Your husband Sergey Tsikhanousky was imprisoned in May 2020 after announcing his bid to challenge dictator Alexander Lukashenko for the Belarusian presidency. You’ve said that your initial decision to run for president in his stead was driven by love. But what sustained you through the three week campaign that followed?
It was not three weeks, but more. First there was a month of collecting signatures, and then another month of the agitation campaign, with rallies and speeches. The elections were held on August 9. All this time people, Belarusians, helped me.
First, Sergey’s team. But then, when they were also imprisoned, new people came, and the team appeared again. So I was helped by their support and the belief of a huge number of people that we can make a difference – we saw that we are in the majority.
We saw that the dictator was supported only by those whom he pays – security officials, pocket officials and businessmen. These people are not a big part of the Belarusian nation, but, unfortunately, they are armed, have access to the budget, and can even take loans and other resources from the Kremlin.
All this time, I was supported by the thought that I could not deceive the expectations of those people who gave me their signatures.
On August 10th 2020 the Central Election Commission announced that Alexander Lukashenko had won a record sixth term as president, taking 80% of votes on an 84% turnout. What was your first thought when you saw the official results?
We knew that he would call a victory for himself. This has happened more than once. Not a single election during his reign has been recognised by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as fair and legitimate. But this time it was crystal clear that Lukashenko had not won 80% of the vote, or 50%, or even 30%.
His lies were no surprise to anyone. But they angered the vast majority of Belarusians.
And those tortures and repressions that later began in relation to dissenting civilians were just the last straw that showed Belarusians that this could no longer continue. This inhuman regime must go away.
The same day you attempted to file an official protest at the Election Commission. You then went missing for several hours, before surfacing in neighboring Lithuania. What happened in the intervening time?
In short, I was separated from my team members. Psychological pressure was exerted on me for several hours, and in the end I was forced to choose between prison and leaving the country. At the same time, they said that my children would be sent to an orphanage and grow up without me. I chose the children. I have already said that later I will tell you in detail how it all happened.
“They said that my children would be sent to an orphanage and grow up without me.”
Now, let me remind you, my husband has been in prison for more than a year and a half and is a hostage of the regime, along with about 5000 other people who are behind bars, 1000 of whom have been recognised as political prisoners, and this number is still growing.
But we can say that all 9 million inhabitants of my country are hostages, who have no protection and are in constant mortal danger.
In the 16 months since you have been forced to broaden your focus from Belarusian domestic to international politics, advocating for sanctions against the regime and fighting for recognition abroad. You’ve argued that international support for the democratic movement must be a “process”, rather than a “one time action”. What does the “process” you envision look like in practice, and what do you say to diplomats and policymakers worldwide to encourage them to act?
Sanctions are an attempt by civilized countries to return the regime to the observance of human rights and the international treaties and agreements it signed and now does not fulfill.
I tell politicians all over the world about the situation in the country, about what is happening, and ask them to join the programs to help the victims and support the destroyed public organizations and independent media.
After the Ryanair hijacking and the regime-organized migrant crisis, no one had any illusions about the regime. Everyone understands that this is an absolutely inadequate and mentally unstable neighbor, which is dangerous not only for Belarusians, but for the entire region and even for the whole world.
Lukashenko has no understanding of how countries coexist in the world now, no vision of the future. He continues to smash and destroy the economy of Belarus, leading people and businesses to flee the country. The dictator’s only task is to maintain power: he has done so many terrible things during his “reign” that he is now very afraid of answering for them. Scared and cornered, he is dangerous.
And now the entire civilized world has this understanding that a dictator cannot be “pacified”. He must be stopped.
“The dictator’s only task is to maintain power: he has done so many terrible things during his “reign” that he is now very afraid of answering for them.”
For this, it is important that our actions are clear, decisive and coordinated. The more forcefully and decisively we act, the faster we will achieve our goals.
It is important that the world community remains consistent in the implementation of its policy of non-recognition and sanctions pressure. To improve the effectiveness of sanctions, it is necessary to close all loopholes and workarounds.
It is important to cut off the flow of funds to the regime, both in the form of aid and as loans.
It is necessary to influence those of its supporters who help bypass the sanctions.
We will not allow the regime to trade in political prisoners, and we ask the civilized world not to discuss the fate of Belarus behind the back of the Belarusian people.
We have two requirements which we will not retreat from: first, to respect the sovereignty of Belarus; second, to respect the will of the Belarusian people, which seeks to stop the violence, to free everyone who is behind bars for political reasons, and to hold new fair elections.
You have previously suggested that the situation in Belarus is “not about geopolitics at all” and that it is instead down to the Belarusian people to “decide their own future”. Yet you have repeatedly called on European leaders to stop looking over their shoulders at Russia and impose stricter sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime. How do you reconcile those two positions?
Why is it necessary to look back at Russia when solving the Belarusian crisis? Belarus is a sovereign independent country with its own history and culture.
The reason for the intra-Belarusian crisis is that Lukashenko usurped power and does not want to give it up, although the Belarusians refused to trust him and voted against him in August 2020.
Sanctions against the Lukashenka regime were imposed by European countries for systematic gross violation of human rights and failure to comply with the international obligations the regime signed.
Amid November’s migrant crisis on the Belarusian border you appeared at the European Parliament and asked a stark question: “do you really assume the regime’s abuses and threats beyond its borders will end there?” What is Alexander Lukashenko trying to achieve with such provocations? Should we expect them to continue?
He is trying to return to the global political agenda and regain recognition – so that world politicians start talking to him, so that he can bargain with them for the easing and lifting of sanctions.
Naturally, he will continue to use every opportunity to achieve this. And it must finally be stopped.
Your title – Leader of Democratic Belarus – implies the continued existence of another, autocratic Belarus, indeed one in which your husband was recently sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. Were you able to prepare for your husband’s harsh sentencing, and what does his case tell us about how Lukashenko has stayed in power?
To give a sentence of 18 years to an innocent person just for daring to stand as a candidate for the presidency is an expression of Lukashenka’s desire for revenge and fear. He is very afraid of my husband and the rest of the brave and free people whom Belarusians believe and who are ready to follow.
The continuation of repressions and sentences with terms longer than those for premeditated murder – all this suggests that the regime is failing to take the situation under control. People are still not ready to accept Lukashenka as ruler and do not agree “to turn the page”, as Lukashenka suggested.
An overwhelming majority is against the regime and for a new democratic Belarus. The regime rests only on those who receive money from it. This is a small part – about 12-18% of the country’s citizens, according to opinion polls. Another thing is that it is they who are armed and have access to resources.
“Tightening the nut all the time will eventually break the thread. That is, everything moves in one direction – towards the end of the regime.”
But all the same, the level of repression itself has reached the point where suppression and repression begins against everyone without exception. And if you lower the pressure, then the system immediately goes out of control. That is, they have no way out – only to increase repression. But this cannot be done indefinitely. Tightening the nut all the time will eventually break the thread. That is, everything moves in one direction – towards the end of the regime.
Are you therefore still hopeful for the eventual arrival of democracy in Belarus?
Certainly. This is the only possible outcome. Lukashenka – with his outdated views, fear of everything new, lack of understanding of modern processes, management principles and technologies – is the past. He is an obstacle to the development of the country. The future cannot be prevented.
You spoke at the Geneva Summit in 2021 to alert the world to the ongoing human rights crisis in Belarus and express such hopes. How important are such fora for the democratic movement?
We are very grateful to the international community for its support of the Belarusian people, for its assistance to the civil society of Belarus and the specific affected people. Thanks to everyone who is guided by democratic values and universal human ideals.
I believe that no decent person can turn a blind eye to torture and violence against peaceful people, to atrocities and beatings, to the grief of children and mothers. No business interests can justify it. I know that in a global sense, the whole world and business, among other things, will benefit from the fact that democracy will triumph in Belarus.
I am sure that Belarus will return to the family of civilized countries and will be an adequate neighbor and partner.