A a year has passed since Belarusians took to the streets to challenge authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko over stolen elections, marking the biggest crisis of his 27 years in power and the most heartbreaking year in the modern history of the country.
In an interview, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya issued a message of defiance tinged with pain as she detailed the toll last year took to the 35,000 imprisoned, hundreds tortured and thousands more forced to flee the country or to hide from Lukashenko’s repression.
“People were in a state of euphoria,” Tsikhanouskaya recalled of the atmosphere in Belarus a year ago as more than 100,000 protested. “We also thought: look how many we are, there is no way the regime can stay in power. We probably weren’t ready for this level of cruelty.
A year later, the opposition came under siege, as the government jailed more than 600 political prisoners in its country and stalked its critics in exile, scrambling a MiG-29 to intercept a Ryanair flight in May and attempting to board a Belarusian sprinter on a plane at the Olympics for calling his coaches “neglect”. Tsikhanouskaya calls these acts of desperation as Lukashenko seeks to maintain his rule through fear.
“Over the past year, he has become more cruel and harsh because he understands that he has lost the face of a strong leader,” she said of Lukashenko, who became president in 1994. “Yes, he’s in power. But it’s because of the violence. Not out of respect, not out of love… He couldn’t force people to love him.
Forced to leave the country last year, Tsikhanouskaya is based in Vilnius, Lithuania, where she has focused on rallying international support for the Belarusian opposition and tougher sanctions against Lukashenko. Over the past month, she traveled to Washington to meet Joe Biden and to London to meet Boris Johnson.
Diplomacy has paid off. Later Monday, the United States is expected to unveil new sanctions against Lukashenko that could target the Belarusian economy, including potash company Belaruskali, as well as state-run oil, forestry and steel companies or Lukashenko’s allies. .
Tsikhanouskaya has tried to keep Belarus in the front page of the foreign press and in the minds of its policymakers, even as foreign interest in the protests has waned since 2020.
“It was hurtful for us that the attention towards Belarus fell after the disappearance of these images of these beautiful demonstrations,” she said. « But then the capture of the [Ryanair] plane attracted new attention and the EU followed with the appropriate sanctions. And now I hope the United States and the United Kingdom will join these sectoral sanctions as well. We will see what their movement will be.
The death of a Belarusian activist in Ukraine in a possible “murder disguised as suicide” has sowed fear among politically active exiles. Tsikhanouskaya, who has been given a security post by the Lithuanian government, says she “understands that I am clearly one of the targets of this regime.”
“The regime is trying to scare people who are active outside Belarus,” she said. “It’s an attempt to scare everyone. Scare us, fight us and to be honest it does affect a lot of people. Why deny this? But Belarusians understand that you cannot scare people away forever.
Tsikhanouskaya calls the last year “transformational”. She only entered politics after her husband Sergei, an anti-government activist, was jailed for trying to run against Lukashenko. The self-proclaimed housewife went on to become an opposition presidential candidate, speaking at rallies in front of thousands of supporters. Since being forced to leave the country, she has been a statesman in exile, a transition she described as a “difficult, educational path”.
“I think people have put too much responsibility on me,” she says. “People forget that a year ago I was just a mother, not involved in politics at all. I had to study a lot and I try to do what I can, where I am… But the responsibility is not only on me, it is on all Belarusians.
Her unifying role of a diverse and besieged opposition movement carries immense pressure, as protest actions often lead to new waves of arrests in Belarus. Among those on trial is her ally Maria Kalesnikava, whom she calls the “engine” of the female trio who united to lead the protests last year. Other people trapped in Belarus write to him to tell him that the borders are closed and to ask him what to do.
“This responsibility weighs very heavily on me,” she said. “Every new person who is put in jail kills me all day. Then 10 more [are arrested]. Then five more … You just put your hands in a fist and go on because you have no other choice.
She receives little information about her imprisoned husband from the lawyer in his closed-door trial for incitement to riot and public order. He is told that he is doing well physically but that he has been kept in solitary confinement for 10 months, and that he reads and writes a lot. She said another priority for her was to find funds to help the families of political prisoners, so activists know they will be supported if they are arrested for protesting.
“Sometimes it’s strange, but people don’t understand the extent of the tragedy,” she said. “And when you talk about the fact that a political prisoner needs 2,000 € for his family, for groceries, and there are 600 of them, and so many others who have not been declared political prisoners are in prison, and their families, the people to be relocated, the destroyed media companies, the companies, the NGOs, all this requires [financial] support, ”she said.
She urged Belarusians not to just go back to their daily lives but to continue supporting the opposition. The saga of sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, whose criticism of her coaches snowballed into an international political scandal, showed that there was no more common ground in Belarus, she said.
“If you say a word publicly against [Lukashenko] then you’re already screwed, the KGB is coming for you, ”she said, referring to Belarusian security services. “The situation affects everyone. You cannot stand on the side because there is no guarantee that it will slip away from you.