Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been in hiding in Lithuania since August 10, under guard. While she has been living in forced exile, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko – who is considered by many to be “the last dictator in Europe,” having served as his country’s leader since 1994 – has been facing huge nationwide demonstrations daily.
“I feel great pride [at] my people who at last woke up,” Tsikhanouskaya told Haaretz in an interview – the first time Lukashenko’s greatest rival, who ran in the recent presidential election against him, has been interviewed in the Israeli media.
“They have aims, they know what they’re fighting for. They’re fighting for new elections where they’ll be able to choose a new president for our country,” she said.
Until last summer, Tsikhanouskaya, 37, was an English teacher and translator. She had no intention of being active in politics and only decided to run in this year’s presidential election after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky – an entrepreneur who launched a YouTube channel last year in which he criticized the government – was not allowed to stand. He has been labeled an opponent of the regime and was arrested at a demonstration in May. He was later charged with disorderly conduct and attacking a police officer, and has been imprisoned ever since.
In response, Tsikhanouskaya became the opposition candidate in the August 9 election. Her husband supported her until he was jailed, and she continued to campaign despite threats, harassment and the arrest of some of her supporters and staff.
She reportedly received widespread support from the public on Election Day, as well as from major opposition figures. Standing alongside her were Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of Valery Tsepkalo – another opposition candidate who was barred from running – and Maria Kalesnikava, the campaign manager of a third candidate, Viktor Babaryka, who was also barred from running and jailed.
Tsikhanouskaya said she was worried about the “awful violence” being used by the authorities in Minsk against Belarusians. She views the public protest that broke out in her country as the tip of a process that has existed for years.
“Of course it didn’t happen in just a moment,” she said. “There were preconditions. COVID played a huge role: Our society understood that we can help each other, that we’re a nation and our authorities don’t care for us in difficult times. So, when Sergei Tikhanovsky was going around the country showing the truth and saying the truth, they started to prosecute him. But he encouraged other people to understand they have the right to say the truth and talk about it".
“Step by step, people started to wake up,” she continued. “There was a great fear, but every day – the same as I did – people had to overcome the fear and do something and say what they want. During this election campaign they saw how united they are. Many people came to our rallies,” she said, “and they looked into each other’s eyes and understood that they want to live in a different country. They want to be respected by the authorities, unlike the last 26 years. We want a different life for our children.”
According to the official result, Lukashenko won 80 percent of the votes while Tsikhanouskaya received only 10 percent. However, opposition activists claimed there had been voter fraud, while the European Union condemned the government in Minsk for holding an election that was “neither free nor fair.” It also criticized the violent repression of the protests that erupted immediately after the election, and is advancing sanctions against senior Belarusian leaders.
Tsikhanouskaya filed a complaint with the Central Election Committee the day after the vote, and as a result was detained by the authorities for several hours. Later that same day, security forces accompanied her to the Lithuanian border (to the west of Belarus). In Lithuania, she joined her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, who were evacuated from Belarus before the election due to threats against the family.
After arriving in Lithuania, the official media in Belarus released a video in which Tsikhanoskaya can be seen reading an announcement calling on protesters not to go out into the streets and to respect the election result – in a style reminiscent of those films where hostages read the words of their captors. Later that day, she released her own video on social media in which she stated that she was forced to leave Belarus out of fears for her children’s safety.
A few days later, Tsikhanouskaya declared in another video that she had won the election and was forming a public council to arrange the transfer of power from Lukashenko to her – and to hold new and free elections. In interviews, Tsikhanouskaya emphasized that she would serve as an interim president and didn’t intend to run in any new election.
Will the fact that the president holds all the power in Belarus, including the military and police force, not cause the protest to dissipate without replacing the government – especially in light of the fact that the opposition leader is not even in the country? Do you have the power to even start a dialogue with Lukashenko?
“First of all, I’m not the leader of the opposition, I’m the leader of the majority. Second, you say that Lukashenko has all the power, and you mentioned police, but he doesn’t have the power on his people. This matters. He has power on 1 percent of the people. He has no power at all in the eyes of the Belarusians. They will never trust him anymore, they will not be able to live in their country under his leadership. So, how can you say that he has power? Absolutely not!"
In that case, what practical steps are you taking in order to bring a regime change?
“First of all, all the political prisoners must be released. That will be the sign that our authorities are ready for a dialogue. This dialogue has to happen as soon as possible, because of the political crises and the economic crises. When the political prisoners will be released we’ll start this dialogue – which will lead to new, fair and transparent elections, and people will have the right to elect a new president for themselves,” she said.
“Thanks to different initiatives, we have results from poll stations where the results were falsified. At the moment, we have over 150 real results which are radically different than those which were published.” Says Tsikhanoskaya and adds that
international observers were not allowed to come and supervise the election. Furthermore, the results she obtained were the result of acts of bravery from people who worked in the polling places and were charged by the authorities because they published the truth. She added that she won over 50 percent of the vote – a level that does not require a second round of voting according to Belarusian law.
Are you, like many others, concerned about possible Russian intervention in the situation in Belarus? Have you been in touch with the Kremlin or have they tried to contact you?
“What’s going on in Belarus is absolutely our internal affair. It’s not about geopolitics, it’s a political crisis where our people are standing up against one person. There’s no need and there’s no reason for the Russians to interfere in this political crisis. There is awareness to this [Russian intervention], but I can’t say that I’m afraid of this. I always ask all the countries, including Russia, to respect our sovereignty. We have to deal with this conflict ourselves.”
The principle of Belarusian sovereignty is equally valid with regards to other nations too, Tsikhanouskaya says. Nonetheless, she’s happy to note that many countries recognize her claims that election results in Belarus were falsified and that they don’t recognize Lukashenko’s victory.
“They show their support for the Belarusian people who are standing up for their rights and for defending our elections. They are absolutely for our people, they are supporting us in this fight,” she said. “We appreciate what they say and we appreciate that they are vocal, and we are very grateful for whatever they do to support our people.
“But we also call to respect the sovereignty of our country. We underline that what’s going on is our internal affair and other countries shouldn’t interfere in the situation. When other leaders ask what they can do for us, I say that if one day we will need international mediation in starting negotiations with our authorities, then all the countries which care about our situation are invited.”
International criticism, nonrecognition of the election result and calls for Lukashenko to avoid violence have also come from the United Nations, Belarus’ neighbors and even from the Vatican. A source close to Tsikhanoskaya said she has already spoken with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and the Leaders of Sweden, Finland and Estonia. But her exile in Lithuania has forced her to devote time not only to foreign officials but also to her partners in the protest.
What’s the nature of your relationship with the protest leadership and the other leaders, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kalesnikava? Do you speak? Are there any disagreements or conflicts between you?
“Of course we’re in touch. We’re working together. But we understand that Maria Kalesnikava is in Minsk, and of course she has much more pressure on herself than I have or Veronika Tsepkalo, who is in Poland I suppose. But each one of us does her best to reach the aim we have. So I’m here, meeting with leaders of different countries who show support to our people and our situation. Veronika also, I’m sure, is doing her best for the same purpose, and Maria, who’s in front at this moment in Minsk. I’m really proud that she’s there and I’m proud that we’re still together, that we have one aim and we’re moving toward it together.”
The fact that the leadership of the opposition is made up of women is no coincidence, and Tsikhanoskaya attributed great importance to it. “The phenomena of a [female] revolution is very significant in our demonstrations. We understood that we can, we are important and we can defend our country not in the kitchen but in front of men and beside men. So we felt ourselves as a united nation where people help other people, take care of other people – and this is our unity.”
But in spite of what she may say, it’s clear that living in exile is not easy for Tsikhanouskaya.
In a video released after she arrived in Lithuania, she said that the decision to leave was very difficult and one she made on her own, without consulting with political figures – or even her husband in prison. In subsequent interviews, as well as now, she has refused to say exactly what happened during the hours when she was held by the authorities in Minsk before crossing the border into Lithuania.
“It’s not time [to tell]. Sorry,” she said.
What about your future plans? Do you intend to be president of Belarus?
“No, my opinion on this hasn’t changed. I’m not planning to be involved in the future elections.”
Are you in touch with your husband? When did you last talk to him?
“I think I spoke to him about three and a half months ago, because in our country you can’t phone prisoners. But we communicate via a lawyer who visits him about twice a week. The lawyer tells him about what’s going on in Belarus, and he’s very proud of the Belarusian people. He supports me and he’s really grateful to the Belarusian people that everything he did wasn’t in vain. Of course I’m worried about him, because he’s held like a hostage.”
Can you tell us a little about your situation in Lithuania, the conditions in which you live, the situation of the children and your plans to return to Belarus?
“What matters is that I feel safe here. I’m surrounded with different, wonderful people – Lithuanians and Belarusians – who are now members of my team, and we’re doing our best to achieve our aims in Belarus. We’re all working for the same purpose, which hasn’t changed: new elections in Belarus.
“My children are fine, thank God. They want to go back, they miss their Daddy. I also want to go back to Belarus, and I will as soon as I feel safe there.”
She continues: “We have a wonderful country with peaceful, friendly and hardworking people who have lived under this regime for 26 years. According to the Constitution we have a lot of rights, but in reality we have no rights at all. People are imprisoned just for having an intention to tell the truth; they’re imprisoned for going out and showing their disagreement with the regime.
“It’s not safe to live there, because people are disappearing. It’s not safe to go out and raise your voice, because you’ll be beaten and imprisoned. There’s no justice – our people have had enough. They woke up and want to live in a democratic country where people are safe and free. Now it’s high time for our people to struggle for their rights, and they’re ready to build a country for life.”