Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Excl: Belarus opposition leader says “all action” UK is “example to the world”

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: The UK’s strong support against Lukashenko is better than EU which “cannot bring itself to agree”

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition candidate against Aleksandr Lukashenko in the rigged presidential elections of Belarus held last month, went to the Election Commission in Minsk on 10 August to lodge a formal complaint against the manner in which the vote was conducted. When she reappeared, she was in Lithuania. Tikhanovskaya was an unlikely candidate: a mother of two children, she put herself forward after her husband—a blogger who was poised to run against Lukashenko—was detained in May. Her candidacy ignited a movement for the reclamation of Belarus.

Lukashenko was rattled. For the first time in 26 years, the man who delights in describing himself as Europe’s last dictator confronted the realistic prospect of the collapse of his authoritarian enterprise. His response was predictable. He pronounced himself the winner with 80 per cent of the vote. When ordinary Belarusians rose up in protest, he set loose his militia on them. 

The jails in Belarus are packed with young people whose sin was to cast their ballot and ask that it to be counted. But torture is not having the intended effect. A decade ago, the use of force succeeded in stamping out protests. Today, even the most macabre forms of punishment are failing to deter Belarusians from gathering to clamour loudly for Lukashenko’s exit. Protests are not only not abating: they are being joined by people who not so long ago would have done everything in their power to appear apolitical.

Maybe I’m not safe, maybe their hands are even in Lithuania. I don’t know

Their great hope is Tikhanovskaya. From Vilnius, she is sustaining the momentum against Lukashenko by building what is effectively a government-in-exile. And though she still cannot bring herself to talk about what happened at the Election Commission in Minsk on 10 August, she is certain that Lukashenko is on the way out. Nothing could have prepared Tikhanovskaya for the role she is now performing. Greatness is being thrust upon her. And she is meeting the challenge with dignity and sangfroid. While she refuses to fault those who cannot bring themselves to stand with the people of Belarus, acknowledges with gratitude that the most unremitting support for her—and for the pro-democracy movement she leads—has come from Britain. 

A day after her meeting with Emmanuel Macron, I spoke with Tikhanovskaya on the phone from India for The Critic. The transcript of the conversation is edited for clarity. 

Kapil Komireddi: You have been living in Lithuania since you left Belarus in August. What happened after the elections? What were the conditions  when you went to complain to the Election Commission. Were you coerced?

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: I still can’t tell you what happened to me on 10 August at the Election Commission. But I can say that I left for Lithuania on the night from 10/11 August. I was sure that I would give up because it was really hard to calm the situation at home. Who never was in such a situation I think wouldn’t understand me, but I thought I that would step away because I didn’t want to deal with the system, with this regime. During my election campaign I saw who Belarusian people were. They are not giving up. They have changed forever. I again understood that I can’t step away. I had no right to do this. So in a couple of days of my disappearance I again started to speak. 

KK: What has the reception in Lithuania been like? How are you being treated by the authorities? 

ST: Lithuanians treat me well. They really take care of me and take care of my children. A lot of Lithuanian people help my team and me personally. And they are really involved in—they want to support people who had to flee from Belarus. So they have been really supportive—to me, my team, with the situation overall.

KK: Do you have any contact with your husband? Do you know how he’s doing?

ST: You know I haven’t spoken to him since the end of May, when he was jailed. We are in contact through a lawyer who visits him twice a week. The circumstances in our jails are horrible. There’s torture for any person who is in jail now—innocent people who are sitting there for their political position. It’s awful when innocent people have to suffer. But my husband stays brave. He’s the same as all the persons who are in jail in Belarus. He’s a strong person. He believes we will win rather soon, that he and all the other political prisoners and people who were jailed during the demonstrations will be released very soon. 

KK: Yesterday you met president Emanuel Macron of France. What did he say—what assurances did he give you? 

ST: The meeting showed me that Mr Macron is deeply involved in our situation. It was interesting that he knows all the peculiarities of it. He’s really interested in our political crisis and he was really shocked by all the violence that our authorities committed against peaceful demonstrators, and he promised to do everything he can to help in starting negotiations between the authorities and Belarusian people. 

KK: Lukashenko has invoked the Collective Security Treaty to justify possible Russian military intervention in your country. Do you fear Russian military intervention if the protests continue?

ST: Our demonstrations are absolutely peaceful and we don’t need Russian troops to become involved in this. I always ask for respect for the sovereignty of our country. And I think this request for Russian troops will not be fulfilled. You know our protests are peaceful. It is our internal matter and we want to sort it out ourselves. We are peaceful people. We don’t need any kind of violence. Also, for Lukashenko—there is no law for them, they just commit violence towards people, so there is no need for any other troops.

KK: Every day there is new video footage of your supporters and pro-democracy activists being picked up by the Belarusian authorities. There are stories of torture. Do you fear, with this level of persecution, if your movement can still survive? Could it simply collapse?

No Belarusian inside Belarus or abroad can feel safe right now

ST: I am sure it will not collapse because the more the violence the more people become involved in this. Okay, maybe it’s too dangerous to join these demonstrations. Yet the quantity of people who are joining them isn’t decreasing, and it will not. In the future, when violence has reached an even greater level,  I don’t [know] what can happen. Maybe these demonstrations will transform into another kind of protest. But they will not collapse because our people will not be able to live with this system anymore. We will not be able to come back to the complete immoral state we have known for 26 years.  Belarusian people have changed. They will not stop. We will not stop. We will move on. We have an aim: we don’t want to live with this regime, this dictator, anymore. 

KK: Alexi Navalny was poisoned in Russia. Svetlana Alexievich, the great Belarusian writer and your supporter, moved recently to Germany because her house in Minsk was broken into. Lukashenko grew up in the Soviet Union—he’s very much steeped in the Soviet way of doing things. Do you—even though you are living in Lithuania—do you fear for the life and safety of yourself and your family? 

ST: Of course no Belarusian inside Belarus or abroad can feel safe right now. But we can’t stop doing what we’re doing. It isn’t about me. Maybe I’m not safe, maybe their hands are even in Lithuania. I don’t know. But it will not stop me from doing what I’m doing now. I can’t stop fighting. Too many people are suffering, too many people are in jails for nothing. We have to do this. Even if we feel endangered. 

KK: We are living in an autocratic age when democracies are dying and authoritarians are on the rise everywhere—in India, the Philippines, America, Europe—and you’re a democrat. The biggest democratic election is taking place in America right now. I know you’re not a politician—you have entered politics—and so I want to know who between the two candidates you think will help your movement or support your movement: Donald Trump or Joe Biden? 

ST: I think both of them. 

KK: That’s not a politician’s answer?

ST: I think both of them respect democracy. They understand what human rights means because they live in the oldest democracy in the world. It doesn’t matter personally to me who the president of the United States is—I don’t want to give my own opinion because I am thinking of Belarus now. But I think every person who lives in a democratic country understands and supports the Belarusian people, who also have the right to live in a democratic country. They are fighting for this principle now.

KK: You’ve talked about people who are being tortured, people who are being persecuted, by Lukashenko—only one of the two candidates has condemned that and expressed support for the democratic movement.

ST: It’s up to every person, it’s up to every country. In Belarus there are people who are against the regime. They don’t want to live in a country with a dictator but won’t say a word for some reason. I don’t know why—because of fear, or because they don’t want to be vocal. Some people go out to demonstrate, some don’t. Some international leaders talk about us—they push sanctions, they talk about the illegitimacy of Lukashenko—some don’t. And they have reasons for this, I am sure, and we can’t blame any Belarusian person nor blame any international leader for not talking about us, for not supporting us. It’s up to them, and I don’t want to ask about their reasons. It’s up to every person. It’s up to every leader. Nobody can be blamed. It’s everybody’s choice. That’s it. 

KK: The UK has announced sanctions against Lukashenko—against him and his son. The EU has not. Right in front of our eyes people are being picked up, democratic voters are being suppressed and beaten up, and the EU cannot bring itself to agree on sanctions. The people who have stood by you are individual leaders. President Macron. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Do you feel the EU as a collective has failed the Belarusian people? 

ST: The EU wanted to impose the sanctions but because of one country they couldn’t do this. I am sure in the nearest future they will impose these sanctions. I think they will be able to solve the problem with Cyprus. I am sure they will impose sanctions. I have to say that if every country from the European Union would impose their own sanctions it would be wonderful but they want to act as one.  I think they need a little more time. But I am really grateful to the United Kingdom. For them to be so vocal, for them to be so brave, for them to be so strong in their position—it was all action. The United Kingdom has really shown itself as an example to the whole world. [For the UK] it’s as simple as 2+2. There are people responsible for these tortures? There are sanctions. The United Kingdom always was very strong in its declarations. It’s a great country. It understands what human rights are, it’s been extremely supportive to us. I talked more than a couple of times to Ms Wendy Morton. She was really supportive. I know the United Kingdom’s attitude towards Belarus. They demonstrate what a strong country means: we think it’s wrong, we act—not talk about this move or discuss it for a long time. We take action. That’s it.

KK: Lukashenko claimed 80 per cent of the vote. He said you got 10 per cent of the vote. What do you think the actual numbers are?

ST: It’s a pity. In reality, everybody would like to know the real numbers . We can’t prove anything because all the protocols—some protocols were not even given to people—we didn’t see them and they were destroyed just right after the elections, though according to the rules they had to be saved for some time. [According to] alternate counting, this would be 65 to 70 per cent. But still I can’t say for sure.

KK: Sixty-five per cent for you?

ST: Yes—something [in that region].

KK: You were 12 years old when Lukashenko came to power for the first time. And for the past 26 years he has been in power. In those 26 years you made a career for yourself as a tutor—you have mentored young  people, you have taught them—and you have had children of your own. You are a wife, a mother, and a symbol of hope to your people. How does this feel? 

ST: A person can’t be prepared for this. A lot of politicians struggle to work—it’s a long way to the presidency for many of them. Is it my fate. If it has happened that I am in this place, was I chosen by God, by the universe, for this? I don’t know why it has happened so. Why me? I am sure that there are a lot of people in Belarus who have a right to be in my place, who are more suitable for this, maybe braver and more clever. But it’s happened to me. What I can say is I will do as much as I can—is in my strength—to be with my people now. I am the same as the millions of people who are sick and tired of Lukashenko, of the regime, of this dictatorship. We don’t want much. We want to have the right to choose the future of our country. It is my fate perhaps. But I am responsible for my choice. And I will do my best to fulfil the duties that the universe gave to me.

KK: Do you believe Lukashenko will quit? Where do you see yourself going from here?

ST: Lukashenko will step away sooner or later. We can’t prognosticate anything—because anything can change any minute. But we have an aim. We have a goal. We need new elections in our country. Our people will not be able to forget or forgive this regime and its violence. When [Lukashenko will step down] nobody knows. We hope rather soon because it’s on this step Belarusian prosperity depends, and Belarusian people’s lives and freedoms depend. There’s too much suffering. We need to change everything as soon as possible. And we will fight as long as needed. We have no right to lose.

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