Interview: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Belarus’s exiled democratic opposition leader tells Roxanne Escobales about her unexpected political career and President Lukashenka’s wavering support for Putin

The World Today
Published 27 May 2022 Updated 17 January 2023 3 minute READ

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Leader of Belarusian democratic movement

Roxanne Escobales

Former Editor, The World Today, Communications and Publishing

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the face of the Belarusian democratic movement. In 2020, she stood as a presidential candidate against Aliaksandr Lukashenka after her husband, an anti-corruption campaigner and the main opposition candidate, was arrested on the campaign trail and imprisoned. Lukashenka, autocratic ruler of Belarus for more than 30 years, was re-elected. Since then, Sviatlana has lived in exile in Lithuania meeting with western leaders and calling for regime change in her native land. Her husband Sergey remains in prison serving an 18-year sentence.

You have said in the past that there will be no free Belarus without a free Ukraine. How is the fate of the two countries connected?

The Kremlin wants to drag our countries into the past, and we are looking into a future which we want to choose for ourselves. The Kremlin doesn’t recognize Ukraine or Belarus as independent countries – it sees them as part of Russia. While the current regime is in our country, there will be a constant threat of aggression from Russia. But we are absolutely independent countries with our own languages, cultures and so on.

The fate of Belarus depends a lot on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, it is evident. When Ukraine wins – and they definitely will win – it will mean the Kremlin is weak and that Lukashenka is weak. Every day we create multiple points of pressure on the regime from within the country, from outside the country. For countries like Ukraine and Belarus the support of strong democracies is very important.

The support between the Kremlin and Lukashenka has always been situational – it is not a real friendship

It is very important for European society to understand that it is not just a war between Russia and Ukraine. It is a war between democratic values and dictatorship on the territory of Ukraine. It is very important for democracy to have a strong voice at the moment.

Recently Lukashenka said the war was taking too long. Do you think he understood what he was getting into when he supported Vladimir Putin by allowing his illegal invasion to be launched from Belarus?

The support between the Kremlin and Lukashenka has always been situational – it is not a real friendship. Lukashenka got huge political and economic support in 2020 after the protests, and now he owes a debt to the Kremlin and had to show his loyalty.

And we see how his rhetoric is changing because the situation in Ukraine is changing. At the beginning Lukashenka always said that, ‘Me and Putin will take Ukraine in three days’, and when this blitzkrieg failed, now he wants to get out of the situation. Now he wants to say, ‘Look, we are for peace. We didn’t have any intention to invade Ukraine.’ He wants to act like he is a peacemaker.

He only cares about his own interest, not his country or its people. He just wants to keep his power.

You have been living in exile in Lithuania for two years, and a lot has happened in that time. What is the state of the Belarusian democratic movement now?

We have been a grassroots movement since the first day. There is no leader who says you have to do this or that. My role is to work on the political level. My task is to go to the European Union, to the United States, and ask for packages to assist civil society. With this technical assistance from our democratic partners, we have managed to build structures in exile, and people in Belarus have managed to build structures inside the country.

Another task of mine is to inspire people, and to explain to the international community what is going on and to show them that Belarus is not just Lukashenka’s regime – it is people who want change.

I communicate with Belarusian people almost every day, especially those who are in the country. We have to keep close ties. It is important to understand how dangerous it is in Belarus to communicate on different channels like Telegram or even to subscribe to some media sources. But people do this. They understand the threats and the consequences, but their energy is still so alive.

I send short messages to my [imprisoned] husband once a week through my lawyer

We have to keep this energy strong and to give this assurance to people that in case something happens to them, or their families, they will get help from outside. This is how it works.

This struggle has come at a very personal cost to you and your husband, Sergey, who is in prison for his political activities. How is he doing?

I communicate with my husband through his lawyer, who visits him once a week. It has to be short messages because there is no privacy. Our children can send him letters and they receive letters back from him.

There are thousands of people like Sergey, and we have to take care of all of them. The treatment of political prisoners is much worse than criminals because they are like Lukashenka’s personal enemies. That is why it is so important to support human rights organizations who provide lawyers to political prisoners. It is important to fund support for them and for families of political prisoners.

I didn’t have any political experience – I was an ordinary woman and wife

You were a teacher when you took over your husband’s presidential campaign. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself?

I would wish I could have had more confidence. I didn’t have any political experience – I was an ordinary woman and wife, the same as millions of other Belarusians. At the beginning, I didn’t feel confident because I didn’t know about politics. I didn’t know how to communicate with the political leaders of different countries. I was scared.

What motivated you to step into your husband’s shoes?

It was an accidental choice. It was terrible for my husband. But I saw millions of people on the streets, and when you see people standing shoulder to shoulder it inspires you. Every day thousands of people call me who want to help, and I understand that we are not alone. This motivates me.

Also, the fact that thousands of children want to see their mothers and fathers who are in jail gives me strength. When sometimes you think you can’t do this any more because it is so difficult, you think about those who haven’t seen their children for two years. It is awful.

So, every day, you find something that gives you a small energy and it doesn’t let you give up.