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Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020. Arturas Morozovas/Getty Images
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020. Arturas Morozovas/Getty Images

I. The exile

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya paced back and forth across her apartment in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. She was packing to go into exile but found it hard to think. The previous day, Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher who left paid work to raise her two children, had run in an election against Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Lukashenko is one of the world’s most brutal dictators and has held onto power for 27 years.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020. Arturas Morozovas/Getty Images

I. The exile

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya paced back and forth across her apartment in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. She was packing to go into exile but found it hard to think. The previous day, Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher who left paid work to raise her two children, had run in an election against Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Lukashenko is one of the world’s most brutal dictators and has held onto power for 27 years.

No one expected a free and fair race in a country where elections have long been more symbol than substance. But no one had anticipated, either, how the race would startle Belarus out of its somnolence. In the weeks before the election on Aug. 9, 2020, thousands of people had attended rallies in support of Tsikhanouskaya. They were previously unthinkable scenes. On the night of the vote, as it became clear that the election had once again been rigged, tens of thousands of people spilled out into the streets of towns and cities across the country. The internet was shut down, and major roads into the capital were closed, as flash-bangs, water cannons, and rubber bullets were used to disperse the crowds.

The day after the election, Tsikhanouskaya went to the country’s central election commission in central Minsk to challenge officials’ claims that Lukashenko had been reelected with almost 80 percent of the vote. Over the course of nearly three hours, two people from the security services tried to coerce her into leaving the country immediately by painting a chilling scene of what would happen if she stayed. In graphic detail, they described the fate of women in the country’s prisons, where they vowed she would be locked up for years. Her son and daughter, then 10 and 4 years old, would become wards of the state. It was not an idle threat in Belarus, where the authorities have been known to take children away from their dissident mothers in a bid to silence them. Earlier in the summer, Tsikhanouskaya had already sent her children to neighboring Lithuania but still feared the reach of the Belarusian state. Her thoughts turned to her son, Karniei, who had been born nearly deaf. From his birth, she had fought to get the very best care for him, moving the family from Gomel, in southeastern Belarus, to Minsk to secure the best treatment. “My inner mother prevailed at that moment,” she told Foreign Policy in an interview during her recent trip to Washington.

If she was to leave the country, Tsikhanouskaya wanted something in return. She tried to get her husband, Syarhei Tsikhanousky, released from prison. A businessman-turned-popular video blogger who was critical of the authorities, he had been detained since May. Tsikhanouskaya had registered for the election as a gesture of support for her husband of 15 years, who had been barred from running himself. She never expected it to go this far. But getting Tsikhanousky released proved to be a nonstarter. What about her chief of staff, Maria Moroz, who had been snatched from the streets in front of her very eyes just a couple of days before?

Across town in the notorious Okrestina detention center, Moroz had been experiencing her own nightmare. Tens of thousands of Belarusians would be imprisoned in the weeks following the election, but in Okrestina, blood already pooled in the corridor. Just one day after the election, the detention center struggled to process the flow of detainees. Protesters’ personal belongings and backpacks were strewn across the floor, their unattended cellphones ringing maniacally.

After two days behind bars, a guard brought Moroz from her overcrowded cell downstairs to meet Nikolay Karpenkov, a senior Belarusian security official. (Karpenkov was later sanctioned by the United States for his role in the crackdown.) Moroz feared she was being taken away to be tortured. Instead, she was placed in an expensive car and driven through Minsk. After a night of turmoil, the usually immaculate city was already unrecognizable, a “warzone,” Moroz said in a Zoom interview with Foreign Policy.

Moroz was taken to Tsikhanouskaya’s apartment, where the two women, who had become close during the election campaign, had lived together in the weeks running up to the election. “Every day was full of fear,” Tsikhanouskaya recalled of that period.

“I’m not going back to jail,” Moroz said when they were reunited at the apartment, and the two women decided to leave the country together. The presidential candidate packed just her passport and equipment for her son’s cochlear implant while Moroz called her sister and arranged for her to drive her own children, then aged 13 and 2, to the border with Lithuania. They were driven through the city to get Moroz’s car, which they would use to leave the country. Along the way, they saw the mass of protesters, and both women were overcome with a “wild desire,” Tsikhanouskaya said, to leap out of the car and join the crowds. But their thoughts quickly turned back to their children.

Before they got into Moroz’s car, the women had one final condition. Worried that the security services may have planted a bomb in the vehicle, they insisted that an agent of the Belarusian KGB join them in the car as they drove nearly 100 miles through the night to the Lithuanian border. Tsikhanouskaya lay on the back seat of the car while Moroz, who couldn’t remember when she last slept or ate, talked with the KGB agent in the front seat as she drove. People just wanted their votes to be counted fairly, she explained. He agreed with much of what she had to say. “Maybe he only agreed because he was sitting hostage in my car,” Moroz said jokingly.

Riot police detain protesters during a rally of opposition supporters, who accuse strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the 2020 presidential election, in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 11, 2020.

Riot police detain protesters during a rally of opposition supporters, who accuse strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the 2020 presidential election, in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 11, 2020. SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images

People take part in an opposition rally in Independence Square in Minsk on Aug. 23, 2020.

People take part in an opposition rally in Independence Square in Minsk on Aug. 23, 2020. Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

A woman is jostled by a wall of law enforcement officers as they block the road during a demonstration in Minsk on Sept. 20, 2020.

A woman is jostled by a wall of law enforcement officers as they block the road during a demonstration in Minsk on Sept. 20, 2020. -/AFP via Getty Images

More than 35,000 people have been detained since the protests erupted on the day of the election. Reports of torture quickly began to emerge from the country’s prisons. Detainees told human rights organizations of how they were beaten, electrocuted, raped, and subject to prolonged periods in stress positions. In June, the activist Stepan Latypov stabbed himself in the neck with a pen in a courtroom after police officials threatened that if he didn’t confess, they would throw him into the “pressure chamber”—a cell where hardened criminals working in cahoots with the authorities pummel political detainees into submission. Today, more than 600 political prisoners, most of whom were arrested after the election, remain behind bars, with many facing lengthy sentences. Thousands of Belarusians have fled the country.

The regime’s brutality is increasingly spilling out beyond the country’s borders. The Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was forced to drop out of the Olympic Games in Tokyo and on Wednesday flew to Poland, where she was granted asylum, after Belarusian officials tried to force her on a flight home for publicly criticizing the team’s coaches. Separately, the Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in a park in Kyiv on Tuesday. Ukrainian police opened a criminal probe and are investigating whether Shishov died by suicide or a murder that was intended to look like suicide. Shishov led Belarusian House, an organization that helps fellow exiles adjust to life in Ukraine. In a post on the encrypted social media app Telegram, the group said Shishov had been tailed and that they had been warned about the possibility of kidnapping and “liquidation.”

Almost a year since she left, Tsikhanouskaya is still wrestling with the question of whether her decision to leave Belarus was the right one. “So many women are now in jail who also left their children with relatives,” she said. “Sometimes these thoughts cover you, and you start to look for mistakes.”

Going into exile, Tsikhanouskaya followed generations of Belarusian opposition leaders hounded out by a stubborn regime. (The Rada of the Democratic Belarusian Republic, a fleeting provisional government that was driven out by the invading Red Army in 1918, is thought to be the world’s oldest opposition government in exile and now resides in Ottawa, Canada.) But from her base in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, Tsikhanouskaya and her team have succeeded in mounting the most potent challenge to Lukashenko to date.

“Part of what they have really worked to do is to try to rethink, does ‘in exile’ mean being cast into oblivion and irrelevance, or is there something productive, something meaningful, that gets done for those who remain on the ground?” said Julie Fisher, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus. (Fisher is also, as she puts it, “geographically challenged,” as Belarus has refused to process her visa since she was confirmed to her post in December.)

Tsikhanouskaya is a self-described “ordinary woman,” a former English teacher who was entirely apolitical until last year. But in the past 12 months, she has crisscrossed Europe with her team of advisors to meet with dozens of heads of state, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, seeking to keep the pressure on the regime and advance the cause of political prisoners.

“You want to cry at international meetings and shout, ‘Look at this!’ Because this is our pain,” she said. The trial of Tsikhanouskaya’s husband on charges widely thought to be politically motivated began in June, and if convicted, he could face up to 15 years behind bars. As Tsikhanouskaya told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing in June, her 11-year-old son understands what prison is, but her 5-year-old daughter thinks it’s “some kind of an interesting place, something similar to a work trip.”

“There’s no amount of articles you can read or diplomats you can talk to that substitutes from hearing directly from somebody like her,” Fisher said.

The learning goes both ways. “I have the best teachers ever,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “Because my teachers are presidents and prime ministers. Because in every meeting I am studying how they behave, how they communicate. You will never read this in books.”

On a trip to Washington last month, Tsikhanouskaya received a welcome that would make many world leaders envious, meeting with the most senior ranks of the U.S. government including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden. The question is, how did she do it?


Belarusian service members block a street during an opposition supporters’ rally protesting against the presidential election results in Minsk on Aug. 30, 2020.

Belarusian service members block a street during an opposition supporters’ rally protesting against the presidential election results in Minsk on Aug. 30, 2020. -/TUT.BY/AFP via Getty Images

II. Europe’s last dictator 

In 2005, on a trip to Moscow, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Belarus as “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.” It was an off-the-cuff remark in an interview with CNN’s Jill Dougherty, but it stuck. Young Belarusians came to bristle at the moniker, tired of having their country viewed through the lens of their president. But the phrase captured the unreconstructed Soviet nature of the Belarusian regime.

A former collective farm director, Lukashenko won the last free election in the country in 1994. Central to his early popularity, which earned him the nickname “Batka,” or father, was a social contract that promised to shield Belarus from the social and economic strife experienced in much of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. This so-called welfare authoritarianism hinged on full employment and an expansive social welfare net, which came at a steep cost to civil liberties and human rights. As Lukashenko consolidated his grip on power, a number of his political rivals were forcibly disappeared and are widely believed to have been murdered. Opposition leaders were quickly arrested or driven into exile, and periodic protest movements were brutally suppressed.

Lukashenko became reliant on Russia to prop up his state-dominated economy with generous energy subsidies in a relationship characterized as “oil for kisses.” In return, Moscow got the loyalty of an important buffer state between its western borders and Europe. But Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine in 2014 rattled Lukashenko and prompted him to look to the West to balance Belarus’s revanchist eastern neighbor. It sparked a relative thaw. The regime released its remaining political prisoners in 2015, prompting the European Union to drop most of the bloc’s sanctions on dozens of regime insiders, including Lukashenko himself. “It was accompanied by a liberalization inside society, and … [by the summer of 2020] people simply forgot that they were living in an authoritarian regime,” said Yauheni Preiherman, the director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.

Lukashenko (right) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow’s Kremlin on June 27, 2000. <span class="attribution">STF/AFP via Getty Images</span>

Lukashenko (right) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow’s Kremlin on June 27, 2000. STF/AFP via Getty Images

Public discontent with the country’s anemic economy had been lingering for some time, but it was Lukashenko’s callous response to the pandemic, declaring it a “mass psychosis” and refusing to implement any measure to control the spread of the virus, that shocked the country. At the same time, a number of new presidential contenders emerged whom, for the first time in years, many Belarusians saw as viable alternatives to Lukashenko. Viktar Babaryka, a former banker, and Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the United States who went on to run the country’s Hi-Tech Park, were creatures of the country’s elite. “This was a huge sign that something had shifted, that people from the elite defected to challenge Lukashenko,” said Artyom Shraibman, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. In a departure from the staid campaigns of previous opposition leaders, Babaryka brought in public relations strategists and media experts to craft a slick campaign that “got the sympathy of the creative class in Minsk,” said Katsiaryna Shmatsina of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.

At the same time, Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Syarhei Tsikhanousky, who launched his popular YouTube channel A Country for Life in 2019, had mounted his own bid for the presidency and was traveling around the country to small towns once thought to be the heartland of Lukashenko’s support. A brash bear of a man, Tsikhanousky got around in a caravan emblazoned with the phrase “Real News of Belarus,” interviewing local residents about their grievances. His style was more populist and raw than the polished campaigns of Babaryka and Tsepkalo. “It was something that very much ticked, and worked, with the frustrated people of the countryside,” said Shraibman, who added that the three campaigns “worked in perfect synergy” to energize broad swaths of the population.

None of them made it to election day. In May 2020, Tsikhanousky was detained. Babaryka was arrested the next month and has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly taking bribes and laundering money. The charges against both men are widely understood to be politically motivated. In July, Tsepkalo fled to Russia after he received word that he would be detained next and threats were made against his children.

That left Tsikhanouskaya.


Tsikhanouskaya shows her candidate’s certificate after she officially registered for the presidential election in Minsk on July 14, 2020.

Tsikhanouskaya shows her candidate’s certificate after she officially registered for the presidential election in Minsk on July 14, 2020. SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images

III. The interpreter

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was born Sviatlana Pilipchuk on Sept. 11, 1982, in the small town of Mikashevichy, a Soviet monotown dominated by a nearby granite mine, in southern Belarus. The Pilipchuks lived in a five-story apartment block made with prefabricated concrete panels, typical across the Soviet Union then and still today. According to the Belarusian press, her father worked as a driver at a nearby precast concrete factory, and her mother worked as a cook in a cafeteria in the town. The family was close and loved to read. “We read a lot in our family,” she told the Belarusian news site Free News Plus last year. “When all the other children were playing, my sister and I swallowed books.”

In 1986, when Tsikhanouskaya was 3 years old, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded, sending clouds of radioactive material across Europe in the worst nuclear disaster in history. Some 70 percent of the fallout landed in Belarus, contaminating food and water supplies. Rates of thyroid cancer among children, whose growing bodies are more vulnerable to radioactive exposure, increased tenfold in affected areas. In the wake of the disaster, a number of international charities were set up to help take children out of the region for a summer—efforts that are still ongoing—as even a short respite has been proved to reduce the level of radiation in the body.

A bright student who spoke English well, Tsikhanouskaya was chosen by her teacher to spend a summer in Roscrea in central Ireland with another girl in the mid-1990s. “They were two wild, young kids full of adventure,” said Henry Deane, who, along with his wife, Marian, hosted Tsikhanouskaya. “You become addicted to the sound of children laughing.” Although most went over for just one summer, Tsikhanouskaya returned to Ireland four times as an interpreter for the younger children. In her early 20s, Tsikhanouskaya had the opportunity to stay and work in Ireland but returned to Belarus to be close to her family, she told Free News Plus.

The Deanes’ son, David, who was in college when Tsikhanouskaya first came over, described her as “largely identical” to the other girls of her age but was distinguished by her compassion. When the younger children were homesick or struggling to communicate with their host families, it was Tsikhanouskaya whom they gravitated to. “That’s the reason she was brought back as an interpreter. It wasn’t that her English was the best—it was simply that she just seemed to have this compassion.”

Periodically the Deanes would get a phone call from a host family saying that the child in their care was distraught. The children would come round to the house and crawl into Tsikhanouskaya’s lap. She teased out their worries in their native Russian language as she stroked their hair. It is this same characteristic that distinguishes Tsikhanouskaya today, the younger Deane said. “In a world where more and more leaders are seeking to find legitimacy through odious displays of toxic masculinity, her legitimacy is based entirely—and this sounds so clichéd and twee—but it’s based on her compassion, her vulnerability, her transparency.”

Tsikhanouskaya holds up a photo of her detained husband, Syarhei Tsikhanousky, at the premiere of the documentary Courage during the 71st Berlin International Film Festival on June 11.

Tsikhanouskaya holds up a photo of her detained husband, Syarhei Tsikhanousky, at the premiere of the documentary Courage during the 71st Berlin International Film Festival on June 11. Clemens Bilan/Getty Images

In May, while her husband was serving an initial 15-day jail sentence, Tsikhanouskaya took his application to stand as president to the House of Government, a forbidding mass of a building in central Minsk that is home to the central election commission. When her husband’s application was rejected, Tsikhanouskaya went home and began to gather the necessary documents together for her own. “I wanted to show him, and only him, that ‘I am with you,’” Tsikhanouskaya said. The following day, the last day to apply, she went back to the electoral commission with her own application. She did not tell her husband about her plan. The next week, when presidential hopefuls were called back to the commission, Tsikhanouskaya was sure she would be told her application had been rejected. She prepared a speech to give to Lidia Yermoshina, the chair of the commission, about her husband’s imprisonment, about how people were suffering under the Lukashenko regime. She learned it by heart, but it wasn’t necessary. Tsikhanouskaya’s application was accepted. “Are you sure you want to be president?” they asked. “I’ve dreamed about it my whole life,” she said.

While her husband’s plan had been to run as a protest candidate and encourage his supporters to boycott the vote, Tsikhanouskaya forged a different path. On July 16, she was invited to meet with Maria Kalesnikava, Babaryka’s chief of staff, and Veronica Tsepkalo, whose husband was already barred from running. In 15 minutes, the women agreed to join forces, pooling the resources of the Babaryka and Tsepkalo campaigns behind Tsikhanouskaya.

From left: Veronica Tsepkalo, Tsikhanouskaya, and Maria Kalesnikava pose with their signature gestures during a news conference in Minsk on July 17, 2020.

From left: Veronica Tsepkalo, Tsikhanouskaya, and Maria Kalesnikava pose with their signature gestures during a news conference in Minsk on July 17, 2020. SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images

The trio soon adopted a signature pose for the cameras: Tsepkalo held up a peace sign, Tsikhanouskaya a fist, while Kalesnikava made a heart shape with her hands. “I was stronger because I had strong women beside me,” Tsikhanouskaya said. They united their supporters around a simple three-point platform: the release of political prisoners, amendments to the constitution, and a fair presidential race open to all. “In our part of the world, where normally men are fighting for power, intuitively people started to trust [the] women and especially when they said, ‘We’re not here for power or politics,’” said Valery Tsepkalo, the former presidential candidate. (In September, Kalesnikava tore up her passport at the Ukrainian border as the Belarusian authorities tried to forcibly eject her from the country. She has been imprisoned ever since. She has been charged with plotting to seize power and creating an extremist group and if convicted could face up to 12 years in prison. At the opening of her trial on Wednesday, Kalesnikava was pictured in the defendant’s box dancing and making her signature heart shape with her hands.)

While all three were new to politics, Kalesnikava, a flautist who was prominent in Minsk’s art scene, and Tsepkalo, a business development manager for Microsoft, appeared at ease in the limelight. Tsikhanouskaya did not. “We worked step by step,” said Tsikhanouskaya’s press secretary, Anna Krasulina, as they taught her how to deal with the media and coaxed her to do radio interviews and then television. But if anything, her lack of experience and political ambition only further endeared her to voters.

“She is in a way a metaphoric embodiment of the whole Belarusian uprising,” said Shraibman, the Carnegie scholar. “The circumstances pushed Belarus as well as Sviatlana from their relatively comfortable bubble to the dangerous world of politics, and the society basically matured just as she did.”


Tsikhanouskaya prepares to record a campaign video in Minsk on Aug. 6, 2020.

Tsikhanouskaya prepares to record a campaign video in Minsk on Aug. 6, 2020. Misha Friedman/Getty Images

IV. “Our real president”

Although Tsikhanouskaya is presumed to have won the presidential election, in the absence of a definitive vote tally she has refrained from describing herself as president-elect. She has consistently said she has no political appetite of her own and sees herself as an interim leader until such time as new presidential elections can be held. But presumptive victory has made it easier for world leaders to line up in support of her. It has also freed her of the likeability trap that plagues politicians around the world. “She never picked a person to be, she was just herself,” Shraibman said. Asked in interviews how she has handled the whiplash of the past year, she pivots to the plight of the country’s political prisoners, the hundreds of people she is acutely aware she represents.

Many people believe that Tsikhanouskaya was able to register her candidacy because the regime underestimated what she was capable of. “He thought that he would make fun of Sviatlana because she was a housewife,” Tsepkalo said. Lukashenko has scoffed at the idea of a woman becoming president. “The poor things,” he said, would “collapse” under the strain. “They didn’t bother to check out who Tsikhanouskaya was,” said Krasulina, adding that she had proved her resolve in fighting for years to get proper treatment and speech therapy for her son. “In Belarus, you have to move mountains to get those kinds of results. And she moved those mountains.”

During her recent trip to Washington, Tsikhanouskaya urged senior U.S. officials to impose sanctions on key industries in Belarus in a bid to try to change the behavior of the Belarusian government. She continues to campaign for the release of political prisoners and a dialogue with the regime that would culminate in new and fair elections. She has no plans to run again as president. “I will be with people as much as people need me,” she said. “But if the new president and prime minister will be a wonderful manager, I will with pleasure become an ordinary person again.”

Tsikhanouskaya meets with members of the Belarusian diaspora in Washington on July 18.

Tsikhanouskaya meets with members of the Belarusian diaspora in Washington on July 18. Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Despite the violence unleashed on protesters in the immediate days after the election, for several weeks after the vote demonstrators marched in Minsk every Sunday, with crowds frequently topping 100,000. But the regime held tight and pursued a punishing crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and protesters. Thousands of people fled the country, many settling in the Polish and Lithuanian capitals. Repression in Belarus reached Kafkaesque levels of absurdity. A woman in Minsk was fined almost $1,000 for wearing red-and-white socks, the colors of the flag associated with the country’s pro-democracy movement. In the city of Brest, dozens of people have been detained and sentenced for dancing in the street. With Russia’s encouragement, Lukashenko has proposed amending the constitution in a bid to quell unrest, but few are anticipating substantive change.

Yet Tsikhanouskaya is visibly buoyed by her supporters, as they are inspired by her. On a steamy Sunday afternoon in July, a crowd of people from the Belarusian diaspora gathered to meet Tsikhanouskaya at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington.

Andre Alkhouka, from the Belarusian city of Vitebsk, where he was involved in local opposition politics, waited amid the crowd with a bouquet of red and white flowers for Tsikhanouskaya. “We came here today because our real president is coming here,” he said. “We’ve only been here [in America] for a month,” Alkhouka added, gesturing at the thick black monitor placed on his ankle by immigration authorities.

After Alkhouka and his wife were arrested and their adult son was beaten by the police, the family decided to leave Belarus for their safety. With air traffic over Belarus suspended after the authorities diverted a Ryanair flight to Minsk to arrest a dissident journalist and his girlfriend, the family took a bus to Ukraine, from where they took a series of flights to Tijuana, Mexico, and then crossed into the United States. Their asylum application is still pending.

Before her trip to Washington, Tsikhanouskaya visited Ireland, where she met with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. She also stopped by to visit the Deanes in Roscrea. On the front step of the family home, Tsikhanouskaya gave an interview to Irish media. “She had the political persona,” said Henry Deane. But as soon as the front door closed behind her, she raced upstairs to see her old bedroom, he said. The weather was beautiful and not too hot, and amid a hectic schedule, Tsikhanouskaya stayed almost the whole day with the Deanes in the house where she spent so many summers as a child. Tsikhanouskaya and Deane walked in the privacy of his back garden. “I wanted to look her in the eye,” Deane said, “and see her reaction when I was asking her, ‘How are you?’”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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