An interview which deals with the political situation in Belarus today. In an exclusive talk with 2020 presidential candidate and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya we learn about the opposition’s plans to democratize the country and how people from abroad can support the democratization process in Belarus. By Tomas Marik
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was born in Mikashevichy (Belarus) in 1982. She has studied English and German at the University of Masyr and then worked for the Chernobyl disaster relief fund. In 2005 she married Siarhei Tsikhanouski, with whom she has a son and a daughter. In May 2020, her husband announced his intention to run for president of Belarus. However, two months later Tsikhanouskaya decided to run herself, when her husband was being arrested by the regime in Belarus. After the Lukashenko-corrupted election of the 9th of August 2020, Tsikhanouskaya was forced into exile. She now organizes democratic movements against the Belarusian regime from Vilnius and seeks support around the world. The European Union no longer recognises Alexander Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus and has pledged broad support for Tsikhanouskaya.
Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya you had to sacrifice a lot for the fight against Lukashenko. Your husband is in prison, your children are in hiding abroad and you are living in exile in Lithuania. Were you from the beginning on aware of the severe consequences of your decisions for your family and for Belarus? And at which point did you realize that you are writing history?
I just acted at every moment in the way the situation demanded. I did what I had to. Other strong candidates were excluded from the campaign: imprisoned or unregistered. As a result, it turned out that I remained one independent candidate, around whom all democratic forces united.
In fact, it is not me who is writing history – history is being written by the Belarusian people. Everyone fights for themselves, their future and the future of their children. Each has its own role. I got this one. Well, that means I have to work at this place. This is a huge responsibility. I am aware of this.
Within about a year you have become a symbolic figure in the struggle against Lukashenko. How would you like to overthrow the current regime, that tortures and imprisons its citizens?
It is impossible to say now when and how the new mass demonstrations will take place. Too many factors are at work at the same time.
Together we are working to ensure that the illegitimate regime goes away. We must deprive him of resources so that there is nothing to pay to the mercenaries who grab and beat people. And here everyone’s work is important. My team and I create external pressure on the regime so that all countries of the world stop supporting the regime, stop cooperating with it, stop giving it loans, etc.
The people inside the country are working in different directions: organizing a strike to stop feeding the regime; or stopped buying goods with high excise taxes, such as tobacco and alcohol; or they print flyers and distribute them to neighbors. Or they launch white-red-white balloons into the sky to cheer up those who are fighting.
The whole world can show solidarity, help victims, prisoners and their families … Everyone can find a point of application of their strength, and then all together we will achieve victory.
Whole Europe watched the demonstrations in Minsk during summer of 2020 after the non-legitimate win of President Lukashenko. Do you expect the same protests this summer? What would it take for the protests to be successful this time?
We need an organization, the creation of a protest infrastructure. For example, people in Belarus are now creating the Workers Movement – which will start a strike and will be able to ensure its continuation until victory. Diasporas are preparing assistance to the strike movement, organizing stable ties for this. We need well-coordinated work all together.
Many different initiatives have already been created – this is ByPol with the “Peramoga” plan (plan “Victory”) – which will work at the moment the situation explodes; and cyber-partizans who hack sites and databases of the regime; and initiatives that record crimes so as not to forget about those who falsified elections, passed dishonest sentences, and carried out violence. There are initiatives that work with middle-level officials, explaining to them that there will be a place for them in the new Belarus.
Our team, together with all democratic leaders, is developing the New Belarus project, which gives people an understanding of what the country will be like after the regime leaves. Belarus will become safe, violence will stop, political prisoners will be released, the same law will be in force for everyone – fair and transparent. The media will operate freely. People will be able to freely express their opinion, vote, elect the leaders of the country in fair elections. And change them if they do not serve the interests of the people and the country. Reforms will be carried out that will provide people with a much freer and more successful life.
In your interviews and speeches you emphasise the close ties between Belarus and Russia. Do you believe that a change of power is possible, as long as President Putin supports Lukashenko?
We are doing everything to make Lukashenko’s support unprofitable for the Russian authorities. Supporting the regime now means supporting torture and violence. The Belarusian people see such an attitude and do not understand how this is possible. Things like that are hard to forgive. This seriously affects the attitude of the Belarusian people towards the Russian leadership and can spoil them for a long time.
At the same time, Russia remains our neighbour, and we will not go anywhere from this. And of course, we would like to have normal good-neighbourly relations with all countries. In general, our goal is to find friends all over the world, not enemies.
Lukashenko claimed last year that Belarus is not yet ready for a female leader. The international medias also describe Belarus as very patriarchal. Yet, it was mainly women, who led the presidential campaign of 2020. Women were also very visible during the protests. How do you explain the fact, that women are so prominent? Do you think, that these social processes are sustainable?
I do not see anything surprising in the fact that women stood up to defend their interests and fight for their future and the future of their children. Every citizen of a country can have dignity, regardless of gender or age.
And Lukashenko’s statements remain on his conscience. Most Belarusians have long understood their extremely low price, they do not listen to him, do not consider his statements adequate. Belarusians do not trust him, which they showed in the elections in August 2020.
How can young people in Switzerland support your efforts and the political imprisoners in the best way? What do you think for example about letters to prisoners, demonstrations, webinars…?
We are grateful for any support and solidarity! Letters are very important, addresses can be found on the website of human rights organizations (https://prisoners.spring96.org/en). Solidarity actions are important, when people from all over the world express words of support to Belarusians on social networks, make various flash mobs, drawing attention to the situation in Belarus – including politicians from all over the world, so that they do not forget that it is necessary to act, and be guided by values, and not all sorts of business interests.
Now the Belarusian state TV is excluded from the EBU – and rightly so. Because it is engaged in propaganda, broadcasts torture, testimony beaten out of people when they incriminate themselves. In Belarus, the independent press has now been almost completely destroyed, and journalists have been thrown into prisons for their work.
In such conditions, it is important for Belarusians to know that the civilized world supports them, that the world does not cooperate with the dictator, does not hold international sports championships in Belarus, does not hug the dictator who beats, tortures, rapes thousands of people. It is important to provide assistance to the families of political prisoners. This can be done through “A Country to Live in” (https://en.stranafund.org) and BySol (https://bysol.org/en/) funds.
Many young people leave Belarus and go to Poland, Ukraine or Lithuania to study. How could Swiss universities and Swiss foundations support Belarusian students persecuted by the regime?
Of course, a huge number of affected Belarusians now need support. This includes treatment and rehabilitation, and support for media projects and for expelled students and dismissed teachers. This means that they need an opportunity to continue their education, they need scholarships, moral and material support.
At the very end, Mrs Tsikhanouskaya what do you think should the European solidarity for Belarus look like and is there an urgent need for action? What can Switzerland do, to support your democratic efforts?
All international organizations must adhere to value positions: in order to refuse support to the regime and to take the side of the Belarusian people. It is necessary to cut off any financial receipts for the regime. We need to stop cooperating with Belarusian enterprises where human rights are violated, and support the Workers’ movement that is preparing a strike.
It is necessary to identify and block the assets and accounts of Lukashenko, his entourage and associates, his “wallets”.
If the sanctions are strong and general, if they are applied firmly and uncompromisingly, if they also apply to those who try to violate the sanctions, this will quickly lead to an end to the violence.
It is very important that the regime does not manage to fool the world community with small cosmetic improvements. You cannot close your eyes and believe in distracting maneuvers and gestures from the regime. You cannot go to trade in political prisoners, as it was done in 2011, when the sanctions were lifted for the fact that the regime released political prisoners. As a result, now we see a significant deterioration in the human rights situation in Belarus. This can no longer be allowed.
The Belarusian people demand only two things: respect for the sovereignty of Belarus and respect for the will of the Belarusian people, who are fighting for new fair elections without Lukashenko. This is a matter of our life, and we will not back down.
How can I support the Belarusian democracy movement?
Write a letter to political prisoners
“People in prison are as happy as a child when they receive a card. It is a gift to receive a letter from abroad. It shows that Europe is on our side.”
– Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya –
Information about political prisoners
Instructions on how to write letters
Support the political prisoners and their families by financial donations
A Country to Live in Foundation