INTERVIEW: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

INTERVIEW: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: "We need strategic perseverance, consistency and creativity. All this will lead to a change." / Tsikhanouskaya's office.
By `Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius May 25, 2023

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who shot to prominence after running in Belarus' disputed presidential election in 2020 and then fleeing into exile, sat down with IntelliNews to talk about her life in Vilnius and what the future may hold for her country.

You‘ve been in Vilnius, Lithuania, since August 2020. How has the situation changed in Belarus since then, and your status too?

Since I moved to Lithuania, your state provided me with full support and security. I am extremely grateful for that, particularly for introducing the Belarusian opposition, and me too, to many foreign leaders and organisations. No doubt  Lithuania and Poland have been and remain our staunchest and most trusted allies.

Going back to your last part of the question, Lithuania is still treating me as the winner of the 2020 presidential election, one who could not take office  due to the Belarusian regime’s crackdowns and repression against the opposition.

Furthermore, I am accepted as the plenipotentiary representative of the Belarusian opposition. And the recognition is real, not just on paper – I feel that every time I meet foreign leaders, including presidents and prime ministers.

However, recently, there have been articles questioning your status as the single voice of the Belarusian opposition. Some point out that it has changed since 2020 and that other prominent opposition figures, like, for example, Pavel Latushko, who now lives in exile in Poland, should be allowed to make decisions too. Do you speak to him? Did you divide between yourselves the responsibilities and functions of opposition?

In order to stay united, we have formed a united transitional cabinet consisting of very different people, including those who have been part of the opposition for many years now and those who moved on to our side recently, after the 2020 election. All of us share the same goals:  a free Belarus, new free and transparent elections, and the release of thousands of political prisoners in the country.

I agree that there can never be enough when it comes to coordinating an opposition – especially such a diverse and colourful one like ours.

However, I want to assure you there is no competition between me and Pavel Latushko, who for his part does a significant job, especially as far as sanctions against Belarus are concerned.

Furthermore, we are welcoming all new leaders who are appearing – there is something to do for everyone. Yet I am the one who took part and won the 2020 elections and this cannot be contested by the various opposition figures either.

The bottom line one needs to understand is that the whole repressive apparatus continues to hamper the work of the opposition. And throwing into the communication field such narratives as a fracturing opposition, its deepening fragmentation et cetera, is just what the authoritarian and repressive Belarusian regime wants to hear and what it is trying to spread in the air.

Having said that, I assure everyone I remain open to substantiated criticism and suggestions on how to improve the representation of the opposition. But understandably, I’d rather not react when a notorious man [Lukashenko] continues alleging that the Russian FSB [the Russian Federal Security Service] has recruited me – it is just preposterous.

Overall, can opposition leaders in exile be efficient? This applies not only to you.

I believe that opposition leaders in exile are more efficient than opposition leaders in prison. Sadly, many opposition Belarusians are behind bars currently – you can do nothing from there. Unfortunately, yet understandably, many of the active people had to flee Belarus or hide amid the crackdowns and repressions – that was the only way to survive.

And those free in Belarus continue to participate in opposition work – as much as they can, with so much at stake. They live in a country where subscribing to an opposition social media channel can land you in jail for up to five years. So the price is big, very big – freedom and, in some cases, life itself.

And those free, in exile like me, I believe have proved their efficiency and reliability. I wish I were more efficient in Belarus itself, however considering the scope of country-wide repressions, that is just impossible now.

Speaking overall, I believe that we’ve managed to retain the attention of the international community and the leaders of the Western powers to our cause: a free and democratic Belarus.

Do you believe that your fellow Belarusians can rise for a new huge protest wave like that in the autumn of 2020?

Of course! No doubt about that. Despite all repressions and imprisonment, the majority has not lost hope for a change – for a better, democratic and free Belarus. But they are in what I call a ‘safe mode’ now – dormant but ready to spill onto the streets at the first possibility.

When will it arise?

It can happen at any time – when some trigger event happens. When war ends in Ukraine,  Ukraine’s victory will trigger something big – a change of the regime not only in Russia, but in Belarus too.

Yet do you foresee a situation where, with Vladimir Putin gone, Lukashenko will continue his stay in power?

I see it differently – the fate of Belarus is tightly linked to the fate of Ukraine, not Russia. We both are fighting Russia’s imperial aspirations and objectives. Unfortunately, the Belarusian regime is cooperating with Putin and Russia. It is understandable, as the fate of Lukashenko is directly linked with the fate of Putin. When Putin is gone, Lukashenko will be gone too.

Now Lukashenko cannot trust even his closest staffers and cronies and all he does is continue  showing and throwing his fist at everyone for the same reason – to keep everybody in fear and to stay in power as long as possible. But one day that will not work for him. Throwing a fist is a sign of weakness, not power.

I personally believe that changes in Belarus can occur much faster than in Russia – just because our society is consolidated. Even with the regime’s support for the war, an impressive 86 percent of Belarusians disapprove of it. That says a lot.

I understand one could write a thesis on the issue, yet try to sum it up briefly: What worked in Ukraine’s Maidan, but failed to work in Belarus throughout its quest for change?

What were the main actions that led to changes in Ukraine? The participation in elections, mass protests. The same actions were taken by the opposition in Belarus. Yet what was the difference and why did it not work in Belarus?

Let's remember the first Ukrainian Maidan in 2004. There are several key differences from the situation in Belarus in 2001, 2006 and beyond.

First, in Ukraine, there was an opposition in the parliament, Rada, that supported the protesters. There is not a single [opposition] faction in the parliament of Belarus.

Second, there were influential independent media in Ukraine, including TV channels. This was not the case in Belarus.

Third, in Ukraine, there were local authorities who supported the protesters, including even that of Kyiv. In Belarus, local authorities were – and still are – absolutely controlled by the centre.

Fourth, there was private businesses in Ukraine that supported different parties. In Belarus, any such support led to repression against the businesses.

Fifth, in Ukraine, there were influential opposition parties with extensive structures. In Belarus, parties were marginalised, they were not represented in the parliament and the  local councils.

And, finally, in Ukraine the votes of voters in the elections were counted, although there were also falsifications. In Belarus, the “list of winners” was approved in advance, no one else had a chance.

And yet the revolution in Minsk in 2020 began despite all these problems and shortcomings. It has not yet led to results, but the fight continues. The majority of citizens have not changed their minds – they are willing to see change despite the repression. The level of unity of the opposition structures and the level of involvement of citizens in the struggle is the highest since the independence of Belarus. Many were forced to leave Belarus but continue to fight for democracy in exile.

The former government has lost the support of the people and cannot offer anything for the future. The country is in a crisis that can only be resolved by holding new fair elections.

To summarise, I can say that all the tools that were used in Ukraine have worked and are working in Belarus as well. They just aren't enough to change the situation. We need strategic perseverance, consistency and creativity. All this will lead to a change.

In the autumn of 2020, you said that Belarus wants good relationships with Russia and does not intend to join the EU. Has your opinion changed?

Then, amid the tense situation, with the Russian troops on our border, we, I mean the Belarusian opposition, did a lot of balancing, asking Russia not to interfere into our internal affairs. I am not sure where this statement is coming from, but I can assure you I’ve never said this. What I’ve said is that it is up to my fellow Belarusian to decide their future. However, Belarusians have always felt European – I mean the values, mentality and so on. If or when it comes to considering EU membership, it would mean a colossal task and the need to implement an array of changes. However, with the war in Ukraine, many Belarusian who before supported Russia now support Ukraine and a pro-European Belarus.

Are you ready to head Belarus once Lukashenko is out?

My goal remains the same: stay in the role until a new, free and transparent [presidential] election is organised in Belarus. We would free all the political prisoners and allow them to run for the highest offices, that of president too. I’ve said it and I am repeating it now: I will not be seeking presidential office anymore.

This interview was conducted in Russian and translated.