VOA Interview: Belarusian Opposition Leader Tsikhanouskaya

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya discussed the future of the opposition movement with VOA’s Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze on Monday.

On August 9, 2020, Tsikhanouskaya was the opposition candidate in a disputed presidential election in which President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory.

The widely discredited claim led to violent protests that were brutally suppressed.

Since the election, Tsikhanouskaya has lived in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the Belarusian opposition is meeting this week to discuss their achievements, failures and plans for the future.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: You organized this conference to have a discussion about the future of Belarus. How do you assess the situation in Belarus today, and how do you assess the levels of cooperation in the opposition movement today?

Tsikhanouskaya: First of all, this conference is not only about the future of Belarus. But of course, this question of how reforms should be organized, you know, or how our economic situation will look like in the future [is] very important. But what’s important now … [is] how differently we can act now to dismantle the regime. Because during these two years, we … started forward. We were not prepared [for] any revolutions at all. It was like, in 2020, it was, like, hot revolution. People who have never been involved in politics, you know, went out to the streets because they wanted these changes. We didn’t have any structures. We didn’t have any organizations at the time. But now, it’s high time to look back — what was made wrongly in the past two years? Why haven’t we achieved our purposes? And maybe our democratic movement needs reorganization.

VOA: What does reorganization of the government mean?

Tsikhanouskaya: We need people who will take responsibility for separate directions of our movement.

VOA: How are you planning to do that, and how do you want this government to be recognized in the world?

Tsikhanouskaya: Way ahead we recognized this. We know this, but you have to understand that this Cabinet has to be helpful to the Belarusian people.

VOA: There are a lot of Belarusians outside of Belarus, and most of them are smart, active and are actually going to protest the government. How are you planning to engage them?

Tsikhanouskaya: Our IT specialists are working on digital bureaus. It will be the platform where people can be involved in decision-making, into communication with each other through this platform. Because I have to say that in Belarus, there was a huge wave of repression. People are afraid to subscribe on channels that are recognized as “extremists” in Belarus. But we need this platform for communication, because we don’t want to be in an informational bubble and not knowing what’s going on in Belarus. We are continuing to communicate through different means, but we need more involvement of Belarusians who are on the ground, not those who are in exile. We need to know how people think in Belarus first of all. And that’s why I hope that it will be a successful project.

VOA: One of your goals for this conference, as you posted, is ousting Lukashenko. What means do you have to do that?

Tsikhanouskaya: Now, Lukashenko is not the president of our country. He lost the elections in 2020. Our strategy now is to exhaust the regime as much as possible through economic pressure, through political pressure, through collecting evidence of crimes that were committed by this regime. And they were presented in 2020, and now the war in Ukraine has started. So, we are, through these mechanisms, trying to split elites, to give understanding to nomenklatura people, to law enforcement, to soldiers of Lukashenko’s regime.

With Lukashenko … [the] economic situation will be worsening. And this is only because of Lukashenko. That he became [a] cooperant in this war. That he brutally suppressed Belarusian people. That the quantity of political prisoners is increasing. So, of course, the international coalition, international support, is extremely important in this case because we understand that when you live in a gulag, it’s almost impossible to [rise up], because the level of repression is huge. But together with the people in Belarus, with the … Belarusian(s) in exile, with our Belarusian diaspora, with our international colleagues, you know, we will be able to press him enough, you know, and to understand that there is no way out of the situation, only to respond to people’s demands, to release all political prisoners, to stop repressions, and launch new free and fair elections in Belarus.

VOA: The war in Ukraine presented new challenges for you, for Belarus and for Ukraine dealing with Belarus. How would you assess Ukraine’s position regarding Belarus and with the Belarusian government?

Tsikhanouskaya: Well, it’s a big question, because even before the war had started, we were trying to understand why the president of Ukraine [Volodymyr Zelenskyy] or his government, you know, were not communicating to democratic forces. Because they still were [trying] not to irritate Lukashenko, you know, not to make him angry, maybe he would not allow Russian troops to use Belarusian territory for invasion. But after the war had started and everything became so evident, how can you still communicate to a dictator or have the Ukrainian ambassador in Belarus when hundreds of missiles have been launched with agreement of this regime? I don’t understand it.

VOA: A lot of Belarusians found exile and protection in Ukraine before the war. Now, a lot of them are slowly being pushed out of Ukraine. Their bank accounts are frozen. What are your expectations from the Ukrainian government to protect those people?

Tsikhanouskaya: Purely through negotiations. … When the war started, a lot of governments, not only [the] Ukrainian one, made fast decisions that Belarus is a country aggressor. So, [the] Belarusian people have to be punished because they are Belarusians. And it took us a lot of time to explain that the Belarusian regime and Belarusian people are two different things.

VOA: Another goal that you have in your plan for this conference and for an all-new Belarus is to force out Russian troops from Belarus and make Belarus really independent. How do you see this happening? How do you see a new Belarus in the international arena?

Tsikhanouskaya: We realized that while Lukashenko [was] in actual power in Belarus, our serenity, our independency [was] at stake because for keeping his own power, he’s, like, selling our country piece by piece. He is against the Belarusian people. He gives our country as lunchmeat for Russian troops. At the moment, as for Russian troops, they’re about, I don’t know, 1,500 to 2,000 Russian soldiers in our territory. But we realize that all those tanks, all those equipment and the thousands of Russian soldiers can come to our country at any moment because Lukashenko has to show loyalty, has to fulfill all the demands of [the] Kremlin. Because, you know, he and his … political support and economic support of Russia. So, if it happens, I’m sure that partisan movement that was launched in February 2022 will appear again. And by available means, you know, [the] Belarusian people will fight against Russian troops on our territory.

Actually, we consider our country to be occupied, politically occupied, by [the] Russian Federation at the moment, and our Belarusian people are ready to fight for their independence. Maybe with not, like, visible uprisings, you know, because we understand that we have to keep our most active people strong, you know, healthy for, like, [the] final fight.

Also, now we have to cultivate our national identity. We very often forget about this, that for 28 years while Lukashenko was gone, he deliberately wanted to ruin our Belarusian identity when good Belarusian schools were closed. Now … some books are called extremist. Not all of them, but it’s forbidden to read some Belarusian authors. A Nobel winner, Svetlana Alexievich, her books are called extremist, as well.

VOA: She was pushed out?

Tsikhanouskaya: Yeah, she’s now in Germany. So, we have to keep together. We have to start speaking the same language with each other because if not we, who else will defend our personal identity? And of course, it’s very important for us in this case also to ask our international partners to … show their decisive strategy to Belarus, that in the case that the Russian Federation will try to have a referendum like in Belarus, they will stand with us. They will not leave us alone. So, right now, they have to say, ‘We will not allow Belarus to be occupied … by Russia.’ So, we need guarantors. We need supporters. We need defenders.

VOA: How do you see the final battle, and when do you think it can happen?

Tsikhanouskaya: We understand that a lot actually depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. That’s why we feel this moral obligation to support Ukrainians as much as we can in our circumstances. Now, people in Ukraine … are fighting not only for themselves or for their territories. They are fighting for all [the] democratic world. And when they win, it will mean that the Kremlin is weakening and hence, Lukashenko is weakening. And it will be a window of opportunity for the Russian people. And our task is to keep unity, to keep Belarusian society healthy, functional, you know, to catch this moment and you know, to put all our energy into this final battle, because people in Belarus, they’re ready for uprising.

Our people, our workers, our enterprises –they’re ready for a national strike. But they say to us that we have to understand that it will not be, like, one more step to democratization. It should be like our last, as I say, final fight. But till that moment, we need to create multiple points of pressure on the regime to support our need to support our civil society organizations, initiatives, you know, for them to in one very important moment, they will again be a unique, united movement, and the people in Belarus will be ready to go for demonstrations. Our victory plan that was launched by ex-law enforcement officers, maybe our army, who knows, also will be involved, like your army, or they will be split off.

You know, we understand that there can be many, many ways how it can happen, and that’s why we have to be ready and build structures that will take responsibility for the transition period for the next steps in this particular moment.