‘Please Don’t Disappoint the Belarusian People’
As Belarus’s embattled president continues a brutal crackdown, challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya tries to keep the flames of democracy alive.
Six months after Belarus erupted in protests following fraudulent elections, embattled President Aleksandr Lukashenko has managed to cling on to power in the face of unprecedented unrest. Often described as Europe’s last dictator, Lukashenko has employed brute force to quash dissent, and 33,000 people have been arrested since protests began in August. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced sanctions on 43 Belarusian officials involved in the crackdown after the journalists Katsiaryna Bakhvalava and Daria Chultsova were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for filming protests in November.
With the European Union and the United States refusing to recognize Lukashenko as the president of Belarus, his election opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaya—a former schoolteacher who took over her husband’s election campaign after he was arrested—was thrust into the international spotlight. Forced into exile in the wake of the election, Tikhanovskaya has traveled across Europe meeting with heads of state as she seeks to rally their support for Belarusian democracy while trying to keep the pressure on Lukashenko at home.
Foreign Policy spoke to Tikhanovskaya about the protests, Belarus’s struggle for democracy, and what the West can do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: It has been just shy of eight months since your husband, the blogger and activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested. You went from leading a normal life with your family to becoming the leader of the Belarusian opposition. What has that been like for you?
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: After Sergei was detained, my life [was split] into two parallel lines. On the one hand, I was always worrying about my husband. Worrying every day. On the other hand, I had to learn so much very quickly. And of course, I have changed a lot. But the [situation] with my husband has not changed. I’m changing, I’m doing something, I’m struggling, I’m fighting with my husband in my mind all the time. My husband is of course absolutely important for me, for my children. But now I can’t think about my husband as one person. My husband means other political prisoners, other people who are in jail. It’s a fight, with pain.
FP: This month, you published your “Strategy for the Victory of Belarusians.” Could you tell us a little more about what you hope to achieve with that plan?
ST: Together with other patrons of the protest movements, with other leaders, we made a strategy of victory within [which] there can be many initiatives. Many [strategies] to put pressure on the regime from different sides. Not only for Belarusians but so the whole world can participate just to push, push, push, and make the authorities answer our calls for negotiations.
We have to take into consideration the level of violence [from the regime] because it’s not going to stop, and it is expected that this violence and torture will continue. People are frightened even more than in the fall because so many people have been detained. Trials have started, and people are sentenced to unreal terms from two to 12 years just for nothing. But we [put forward] this strategy where every person can choose where he can press. If you can’t go out to the streets, you can write letters to political prisoners. You can write letters to law enforcement. You can write letters to the nomenklatura [political elite]. A lot can be done, but it will work only when people are united. This is the strategy. Stay united. We will give you a lot of instruments as to how you can put pressure on Lukashenko. Just do it.
FP: You mentioned that part of your goal of this strategy was to get to a point where you could have dialogue. What would be the preconditions for a productive and successful dialogue? What would you like to see from Lukashenko’s government?
ST: The main condition for this dialogue is the release of political prisoners because we can’t believe a person who keeps people in jail for nothing, for their political views, for their statements. And guarantees that those who had to flee the country can come back safely.
FP: But it seems the nomenklatura, the security services, have remained largely loyal to the president. What would cause them to break away from Lukashenko?
ST: What we missed in the previous six months [is that] we didn’t offer any instruments for the nomenklatura and law enforcement to come to our side. We asked them to come to us, said we would rebuild a new Belarus with them, but [at the same time] we told them, “You are criminals. You are staying with Lukashenko. It means that you support violence.” We were blaming them. We didn’t give this opportunity because people were extremely angry with the level of violence after the election.
Now that we understand this mistake, we are trying to talk to them. We give them opportunities to anonymously give us information. Even if they can’t leave the system openly, if they can’t retire, but to let us know that they are with us, and when the important day will come, they will be on our side. We are starting to communicate with them directly.
FP: Do you feel you’re getting enough support from European countries? From the United States? And if not, what more do you need?
ST: We are grateful for what has been done because at the beginning of our struggle, [we got] really great support. But much more could be done. Maybe the European Union didn’t realize how time is important for Belarus. We always [try to convey] how many people are being detained every day, the level of violence and torture and rapes and in jails. That COVID is in the jail cells. But I understand that the European Union is a lot of countries, and it’s a very slow bureaucratic machine.
At that time, Donald Trump was the president of the United States, and the values of democracy or human rights were not so important for him. But we heard Joe Biden’s strong position on Belarus. I’m sure that Belarusians were praying for Biden to become president because we are sure that he and his administration will be consistent in their politics, that they will call for democracy and the defense of human rights. [With] the U.S. as the leader of the free world, we will be able to consolidate with other countries.
FP: Are there specific actions that you’d like to see from Western countries?
ST: We’re all the time talking about political pressure, about economic pressure, about sanctions and support of civil society, and about justice. But what is most important is to stay consistent. Because we in Belarus, we still remember 2010, when there were sanctions. Lukashenko started to [act] as if he’s doing something for people, trading people, trying to start dialogue with different countries. Lukashenko released political prisoners, [and] they canceled sanctions. But this year is different. You can’t sell your people. You can’t trade with your people. People are not for selling. People are not for bargaining.
The mechanism of putting pressure on Lukashenko should be different. Please don’t disappoint the Belarusian people. We are really relying on your statements that democracy is a value for you. That you are standing for human rights, so stay consistent.
FP: To what extent do you think that Western countries have hesitated on engaging fully on the Belarus crisis because of a fear of provoking Russia? Because of a fear of the “Ukraine scenario,” so to speak?
ST: Every time I meet with European leaders, the first question is always, “How is the situation in Belarus?” The second is, “What about Russia?” And the third, “Aren’t you going to be a second Ukraine?” We had to explain that the question is not about Russia; it’s not about geopolitics. It’s about dictatorship in our country. We want people to feel free in their own country. We are against violence. There is no law in our country. Please help us to restore this law, to release political prisoners. And then please help us to start these negotiations and hold new elections. That’s what we are fighting for. It’s not about Ukraine and Russia.
FP: Would you run in a future election?
ST: I’m not planning to! I get so many messages that “we want you to participate,” but I promised my people in the preelection period that I don’t have this aim, and I haven’t changed my mind. I’m sure that I can be useful, of course. I will not go back to the kitchen, as people here are joking. Of course, I think that I can be useful for Belarus but not as president. I will be nearby. But you have to choose our new president.