Belarus’ opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania after Russian ally Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in a disputed 2020 election that was viewed in the West as fraudulent, and which many thought she won.
Speaking at the Warsaw Security Conference earlier this week she said she believed Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine could loosen Lukashenko’s grip on power. “We have a distracted Russia that is about to lose this war. It won’t be able to prop Lukashenko up with money and military support as in 2020,” she said.
DW: Are there people in Belarus who, in your opinion, would be ready to fight if Lukashenko were to decide to support Russia in the war against Ukraine?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: The Belarusian people are ready to fight for our country. And they have been proving this for two years. Yes, maybe now you don’t see beautiful rallies on the streets, but this is not because the Belarusian people have given up. It’s because we live in a Gulag, in an atmosphere of tyranny and terror and repressions. Any person can be detained for any comment on Instagram, anti-war comments or anti-regime comments, and our task is to keep people safe, to keep people prepared for new opportunities.
If there is a trigger or we feel the weakness of Lukashenko, and Lukashenko will be weak when Putin is weak, then believe me, there will be hundreds of thousands of Belarusians on the streets.
You recently established a temporary executive body for your country. Could you tell us more about its objectives?
The United Transitional Cabinet was formed as a response to the war because we see that our independence is in danger. This transitional cabinet would be like a central decision-making institution. Those people who are on the side of the regime now, even people in militia or military, will see an organized place where they can enter and change sides. People around Lukashenko might support the regime because it’s convenient for them, they are paid, but those people absolutely don’t support the war. This cabinet was organized also at the request of the Belarusian people.They want to see critical forces united within a structure.
We also want to have a military person in this transitional cabinet, a representative of defense, a colonel who can speak the same language as our soldiers, and knows how to assist our military volunteers in Ukraine.
We also have a representative focused on national revival. We tend to overlook this very important part of our work, on language, on identity, on promoting our culture but this is the core of every nation and our language. Our identity has been ruined for 27 years and now it’s necessary to explain why it’s important. In 2020, the Belarusian people felt that we are Belarusians and now more and more of them start more to speak Belarusian. We are going to restore our identity; we are going to fight for our identity.
We will also shortly appoint a representative for social affairs who will address social problems.
You have lived in Lithuania for more than two years. It must be difficult to be abroad with your children while your husband, Siarhei, is in prison in Belarus. How do you deal with this situation?
Of course, I can’t say that it is easy. He’s been in a cell for many, many days. It’s an awful place without bedclothes, without normal food. The temperature in the cell is the same as the temperature outside, it’s very cold and he’s physically humiliated. They want to ruin him. He is a strong person, but of course every day I wake up thinking about him. I also understand that he’s not the only one suffering; there are thousands of people. You feel pain every day.
And every day you see your children who are demanding to have their dad back and you can’t do anything about that. Again, there are thousands of children that are split from their mothers or fathers. It’s like a snowball, it’s becoming bigger and bigger. But you find strength to move forward because you are not alone. I really feel the presence of millions of Belarusians who are with me. I see how people don’t give up inside the country. They can rely on those who fled Belarus because they continue to fight because they really want to return home.
The people in Belarus are self-organized, they don’t need a dictator or another person to tell them what to do. They themselves create different initiatives in order to help. Some of them help prisoners, others help elderly people, there is job for everyone. I feel they showed us how to do it and we are in contact with people on the ground. I feel the energy. Yes, people are afraid, they are scared, but they say: Look, now we need to be quiet. But when the moment is right, we will be on the streets, we will do our part of the job.
But now we need more attention from the international community. People want to be sure that at a particular moment we will not be abandoned, we will not be forgotten. There’s so much pain in Belarus, but the people move forward. The same as the Ukrainians. We feel that both our nations are enduring very difficult times. But at the same time we feel the support and solidarity from powerful countries.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the leader of the Belarusian democratic movement. She ran in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election as the main opposition candidate. After Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner of the disputed elections, she fled to Lithuania.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Edited by: Rob Mudge
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