In an exclusive interview with Emerging Europe, the leader of the Belarusian opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says that the country’s political prisoners need to know that they have not been abandoned.
The leader of the independent Belarusian opposition has told Emerging Europe that the international community needs to keep up the pressure on the country’s repressive regime.
- A year on from a stolen election, Alexander Lukashenko remains in power but looks increasingly desperate
- Authoritarians emboldened by weak international response to events in Belarus
Speaking via video link from exile in Lithuania at Emerging Europe’s annual summit and awards, during which she was named Emerging Europe Public Figure of the Year, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya reaffirmed her belief that sanctions work, and that “it is up to us to make sure that the voices of innocent people behind bars in Belarus are not forgotten, that they have not been abandoned”.
One of the many hundreds of political prisoners in Belarus is Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber who was arrested last year shortly before a presidential election in which he had intended to run against the country’s long-term dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.
Mrs Tikhanovskaya instead ran for president in his place, and by any objective measure defeated Lukashenko.
The dictator nevertheless declared himself the winner of the election, held on August 9, 2020, with an implausible 80 per cent of the vote.
‘They didn’t think a housewife would unite people’
The result sparked widespread demonstrations, mass arrests and a wave of repression that continues to this day. Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee Belarus with her children a few days after the vote.
“I think that the regime underestimated me, and I think that the regime underestimated the unquenchable desire of the Belarusian people for change,” says Tikhanovskaya when asked why she thought she had been allowed to run for president when so many other candidates had been barred from the contest.
“I think that they wanted to humiliate me. They saw me as a housewife, who nobody would vote for. They didn’t believe that a housewife would unite people.”
But unite Belarusians is exactly what Tikhanovskaya did. Tens of thousands of people attended her pre-election rallies, despite the regime forcing them to take place long distance from city centres. Post-election demonstrations attracted hundreds of thousands.
“This is what happens when a government disregards the people it is supposed to take care of,” she says.
A regime of fear
More than a year on from the election, the demonstrations against Lukashenko have lost their initial impetus. A result, Tikhanovskaya believes, of fear.
“People are scared, people have to flee the country because of the repression,” she says.
Nevertheless, she feels that the point of no return has been reached, and that while Lukashenko remains in power, his position is untenable.
She adds that a majority of people still working for the regime are also eager for change, but that fear prevents them from resigning.
“They want change, they want reform, but they are scared for their lives, their families. They have seen what happens to people who quit the system. This fear is difficult to overcome.”
‘Belarusians just want to be happy’
Tikhanovskaya says that is is vitally important that the international community – particularly the European Union and the United States – keep up the pressure on Lukashenko, isolating his regime “economically, financially, diplomatically, politically”.
“Sanctions work,” she says.
But it is equally important, she believes, that they offer support to Belarusian civil society.
“It’s high time to show solidarity and assist those who are fighting for democratic change,” she says. “A combination of pressure on the one hand and assistance for civil society on the other is what will help release political prisoners and bring about a new Belarus through free, and fair, elections.”
“I see the future of Belarus as a country in which its citizens feel safe and secure, where disagreeing with the government does not lead to persecution,” she concludes.
“Belarusians just want to be happy, but nobody can be happy living under this regime. It’s impossible.”
Photo: © Daina Le Lardic / European Parliament.
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