Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: ‘Belarusians weren’t ready for this level of cruelty’
Ayear has passed since Belarusians took to the streets to challenge the authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, over stolen elections, marking the greatest crisis of his 27 years in power and the most harrowing year in the country’s modern history.
In an interview, the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya issued a message of defiance tinged with pain as she detailed the toll that the last year has taken on the 35,000 jailed, hundreds tortured, and thousands more forced to flee the country or hide from Lukashenko’s crackdown.
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“People were in a state of euphoria,” Tsikhanouskaya recalled of the mood in Belarus one year ago as more than 100,000 protested. “We also thought: look how many of us there are, there’s no chance the regime can remain in power. Probably we weren’t ready for this level of cruelty.”
A year later and the opposition is besieged, as the government has jailed more than 600 political prisoners at home and hounds its critics in exile, scrambling a MiG-29 to intercept a Ryanair flight in May and attempting to bundle a Belarusian sprinter on to a plane at the Olympics for calling her coaches “negligent”. Tsikhanouskaya calls these acts of desperation as Lukashenko seeks to maintain his rule through fear.
“In the last year, he’s become more cruel and harsh because he understands that he’s lost the face of a strong leader,” she said of Lukashenko, who became president in 1994. “Yes, he’s in power. But it’s due to violence. Not because of respect, nor love … He won’t be able to force people to love him.”
Forced out of the country last year, Tsikhanouskaya is based in Vilnius, Lithuania, where she has focused on rallying international support for the Belarusian opposition and for tougher sanctions on Lukashenko. In the past month, she has travelled to Washington to meet Joe Biden, and to London to meet Boris Johnson.
The diplomacy has borne fruit. Later on Monday, the US is expected to unveil fresh sanctions against Lukashenko that may target Belarus’s economy, including the potash company Belaruskali, as well as oil, wood and steel companies run by the state or Lukashenko’s allies.
Tsikhanouskaya has tried to keep Belarus on the front pages of foreign press and in the minds of its policymakers, even as foreign interest in the protests has waned since 2020.
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“It was hurtful for us that attention toward Belarus has fallen after these images of these beautiful demonstrations disappeared,” she said. “But then the capture of the [Ryanair] airplane brought new attention and the EU followed with the appropriate sanctions. And now I hope that the US and the UK will also join these sectoral sanctions. We’ll see what their move will be.”
The death of a Belarusian activist in Ukraine in a possible “murder disguised as a suicide” has sown fear among politically active exiles. Tsikhanouskaya, who has been given a security detail by the Lithuanian government, says she “understands that I am clearly one of the targets of this regime”.
“The regime is trying to scare people who are active outside of Belarus,” she said. “It’s an attempt to scare everyone. To scare us, to beat us down, and to be honest it has an effect on a lot of people. Why deny that? But Belarusians understand you cannot scare people forever.”
Tsikhanouskaya calls the last year “transformational”. She entered politics only after her husband, Sergei, an anti-government activist, was jailed for trying to run against Lukashenko. The self-described housewife then became an opposition presidential candidate, speaking at rallies to thousands of supporters. Since being forced out of the country, she is a statesperson-in-exile, a transition she has described as a “difficult path, an educational one”.
“I think that people have put too much responsibility on me,” she says. “People are forgetting that a year ago I was just a mother, not at all involved in politics. I have had to study a lot and I’m trying to do what I can, where I am … But the responsibility isn’t just on me, it’s on all Belarusians.”
Her role as unifier of a diverse and embattled opposition movement carries immense pressures, as protest actions often lead to new waves of arrests inside Belarus. Among those on trial are her ally Maria Kalesnikava, whom she calls the “motor” of the female trio that united to lead the protests last year. Others trapped in Belarus write to her, saying the borders are closed and asking what to do.
“This responsibility weighs on me very heavily,” she said. “Every new person who is put in jail kills me for the whole day. Then 10 more [are arrested]. Then five more … You just ball your hands up in a fist and keep going because you don’t have any other choice.”
She receives scant information about her jailed husband from the lawyer in his closed-door trial for incitement to riot and breaching public order. She is told he is holding up well physically but has been kept in an isolation cell for the past 10 months, and that he reads and writes a lot. She said another priority for her is finding funds to help the families of political prisoners, so activists will know they will be supported if they are arrested for protesting.
“Sometimes it’s odd but people don’t understand the size of the tragedy,” she said. “And when you talk about the fact that one political prisoner requires €2,000 for his family, for groceries, and there are 600 of them, and so many more who haven’t been declared political prisoners are in jail, and their families, the people who need to be relocated, the media businesses that have been destroyed, the businesses, NGOs, it all requires [financial] support,” she says.
She urged Belarusians not to simply go back to their daily lives but to continue to support the opposition. The saga of the sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, whose criticisms of her coaches snowballed into an international political scandal, had shown that there was no middle ground in Belarus any more, she said.
“If you say any word publicly against [Lukashenko] then you’re already done for, the KGB is coming for you,” she said, referring to the Belarusian security services. “The situation affects everyone. You can’t stand on the side because there’s no guarantee it will pass you by.”