Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the Leader of the democratic Belarus, the main opposition candidate to President Lukashenko in the presidential elections held on 9 august 2020, who became the Lukashenka’s fiercest rival, subsequently the rise of the popular demonstration against the Belarusian government, on august 2020.
The election aftermath signed the victory of Lukashenko, who achieved the 80% of the vote. Lukashenko’s victory was denounced as fraudulent, leading to the peaceful protests of thousands of Belarusian people, who took to the streets, despite the Covid-19 danger, to get new, democratic and legal elections. The protests faced the brutal response of the Belarusian authorities, which replied with violence against demonstrators and mass detentions.
Before her candidacy, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was an English teacher and Interpreter. During her childhood, she spent long time in Ireland. Indeed, she was “One of thousands of children brought to Ireland by charities in the years after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in northern Ukraine, she used her language skills to help interpret for others in the program.”
When his husband, the Youtuber, activist and blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested by the Belarusian authorities on 29 may 2020, Sviatlana took up the candidacy to continue his political campaign. Together with Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, Sviatlana became the symbol of freedom for Belarusian people. As Anna Krasulina, Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s press secretary, said to the NY Times “It was a very interesting moment, and people immediately began to gather around her”.
Immediately after the elections, Sviatlana was forced to flee to Lithuania fearing repercussions, which could have possibly affected her children. Similarly to other women activists, Sviatlana denounced the discriminatory treatment perpetrated by Belarusian regime, which was accused of the threats of harassment, threats of sexual abuses and threats to take children away from opposition leaders, as reported by Amnesty International.
Despite the fear of threats by the Lukashenka’s regime, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she nevertheless decided to persevere in her campaign: “There must be a symbol of freedom.”
I would like to start from the recent issue of the hijacking of Ryanair plane. The plane has been diverted to Minsk by a Belarusian MiG-29 on May 23, 2021. Once the flight landed off, the security forces have arrested the journalist and activist Roman Pratasevich, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. The EU authorities have condemned the Belarus regime to pursue threatening activities against human rights, freedom of expression. The President of EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen has considered this action as an attack on European sovereignty, announcing sanctions and demanded for Roman Pratasevich & Sofia Sapega’s immediate release. Which actions EU and International Community could implement in order to stop Lukashenka’s regime?
“I would like to express my gratitude to the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine for having already taken a principled position and refusal to tolerate such piracy. Unfortunately, those who cling to power at all costs do not understand kindness, but only the language of power. People in Belarus were convinced of this when they came under repression for peaceful protest. But the regime doesn’t have enough resources to hold on to power. Therefore, it will be better for everyone if the changes happen faster. Here’s what you can do, in my opinion: 1. Conduct an investigation into the hijacking of the Ryanair plane, identify the perpetrators and initiate a criminal investigation against them within the framework of universal jurisdiction; 2) Initiate investigations within the framework of universal jurisdiction against those who organize repressions in Belarus, especially in those countries where there are citizens of our country who have suffered from repression. While such investigations are being conducted only in Lithuania, in other countries, at best, the first steps have been taken. 3) To impose effective sanctions against those who violate human rights in Belarus, especially against judges and prosecutors who are obliged to comply with the law, but grossly violate it. Sanctions against the regime’s “wallets” are important. Until now, some of them, including those responsible for cigarette smuggling, have mysteriously disappeared from European sanctions lists. 4) Support journalists, independent media, analytical community, educational projects and civil society in Belarus. 5) Support projects aimed at the development of Belarus after the changes. One of these projects of the European Union – the Comprehensive Plan-was recently published and was enthusiastically received by our citizens. 6) To facilitate negotiations with the authorities, and the result of the negotiations will be a new fair presidential election. It is our responsibility to achieve changes in Belarus, but the solidarity of the international community is very important for our citizens.”
As you affirmed on Twitter, one can assume that Roman is beaten in prison and submitted to psychological pressure, same as Sofia. There could be any realistic possibility that Roman Pratasevich & Sofia Sapega will be released? What could be done to achieve this goal?
“We all became realists, while remaining romantic at heart. We have no illusions that Roman and Sofia can be released as a result of any appeals. Only hard pressure can lead to their release, as well as the release of thousands of people who are imprisoned for political reasons. Today, dozens of journalists are in prison, and the destruction of the largest independent news portal tut was particularly cynical.by and the arrest of its employees. We demand an end to the repression and the release of all political prisoners. This requires both domestic and international pressure on the regime.”
Michael O’Leary, Ryanair CEO, declared that the presence of KGB agents onboard is realistic. This option could demonstrate that Lukashenka’s regime is able to operate anywhere and in any circumstance. Do you fear that many other dissidents and political refugees can face the same fate of Roman Pratasevich?
“I am not inclined to consider Lukashenko all-powerful. He is a desperate man who realized that it was time to give up power, but did not find the courage to leave. He is not able to govern the country normally in a situation where the citizens of Belarus have ceased to respect him. But in a situation where he clings to power with all his might, he is dangerous. It’s good that this is finally understood in other countries. Yes, it is possible that many other opponents of Lukashenko will face reprisals. There is nothing new in this information for us. Perhaps the Lukashenka’s special services will try to do something like this in other countries. Here it is important that these people get their hands on it now. Therefore, what I have already mentioned is important: investigation of the hijacking incident and investigation of repressions in Belarus within the framework of universal jurisdiction. When the organizers and perpetrators of the repression are on the Interpol lists, they, as well as others, will understand: impunity is over.”
Moreover, your husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, blogger and political opponent, has been arrested on May 2020 by the OMON with the accuse of inspiring the protests subsequently the 2020 presidential election results. What is Sergej’s situation right now?
“Sergey is in prison, as are hundreds of other political prisoners. His illegal detention took place almost live, and the whole of Belarus knows that he is innocent. Sergey is a man of principle, with a strong character. I believe that he will hold you. It is a pity that the children do not see their father. But in the same way, hundreds of children, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons are waiting for the release of their loved ones from prison. We fight for each of them. And I am sure that the people will win, not the usurper. And we, me and the children, will embrace Sergei in freedom. Just as thousands of others will embrace their loved ones. And the whole country will breathe a sigh of relief when Lukashenko leaves.”
Considering the imprisonment of Pratasevich, do you fear any retaliation due to your political activity? Do you fear for your own safety?
“Of course, Raman Pratasevich was arrested for political reasons. He didn’t work on our team, but he kept in touch with us as a journalist and blogger. Many journalists and media in Belarus have suffered for supporting our common struggle for fair elections. Of course, each of us can not feel safe, there are reasons for fear. But it is everyone’s choice: to give in to fear or to overcome it. The majority of Belarusians decided to overcome their fear in 2020, and this changed the country. Now it is impossible to return everything back, as Lukashenko would like.”
Considering the facts which followed the protests on August 2020 and the brutal repression perpetrated by the Lukashenka’s regime, what is the condition of Belarusian citizens now? Would you like to explain us the current situation in Belarus?
“Brutal crackdowns had led to a decrease in street activity, but the protest has not disappeared. And our communication with a variety of people, and sociological studies show that the protest has not disappeared anywhere. People are determined to get new elections, and the protest is taking on new forms. No one can be forced to respect someone by threats or batons. This only increases the rejection of violence. Obviously, the regime has no future, but Belarus does. And this future is a New Belarus. My countrymen dream of it.”
In which way do the Opposition is organizing itself? Which options are you pursuing in order to support the Belarusian protesters and to oppose Lukashenka’s power?
“We operate as a single movement that was formed largely spontaneously last fall. We hold constant consultations with various organizations, initiatives, and communities: political, professional, and regional. Everyone can consider themselves a member of the general movement without any permission or approval. On a weekly basis, we coordinate our actions with the partners who participated with us in the election campaign – with the headquarters of Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, as well as with the Coordination Council and the National Anti-Crisis Management, which is headed by Pavel Latushko. We have created and are expanding a system of support for local communities that arose spontaneously, and now seek to act in a coordinated manner. We cooperate with a wide variety of organizations, such as ByPol (an association of former law enforcement officers) or the Sports Solidarity Fund. In today’s situation, it is important to offer people effective and as safe as possible ways of nonviolent struggle, and we pay great attention to this.”
Moreover, we should talk about the political support coming from EU institutions, European countries – Italy particularly – and US. How do you judge the political commitment of those international actors? Is their support adequate or much more should be done? Is there anything that the EU could do or could do much better to help Belarusian people?
“Of course, in a situation where the political crisis in Belarus has not yet been resolved, we would like to receive more support. But we are very grateful for what is being done now. What kind of support we need most, I told you in the answer to your first question. To summarize, it is important for us that the EU and Italy act on the basis of the values of a united Europe. In this case, you can count on the result. If you try to apply a “pragmatic” approach, bargain with the usurper, this person will deceive you, as he deceived everyone. Recently, one hundred years have passed since the birth of the great man, Andrei Sakharov. He said that the moral approach is the most pragmatic, since only it leads to reliable results.”
Finally, lets focus on the role of Russia. Some observers assumed that Moscow is playing a key role in supporting the Lukashenka’s regime. What is, in your opinion, the role of Moscow into the Belarus issues, both on the domestic and international stage?
“I can only express regret that the Russian leadership supported not the choice of the citizens of Belarus, but a person who does not respect this choice. Popular protests in Belarus have only one goal – to return the right to choose to the voters. Changing the foreign policy orientation of the country is not on the agenda now, our demands are aimed at solving only one internal problem. The people of Belarus have always been friendly to the people of Russia and the peoples of all neighboring countries. We would like to maintain close friendly relations in the future. The position of the Russian leadership in supporting a person who has lost the support and respect of his citizens, seems to us erroneous. And this position harms relations between Belarus and Russia. We hope that common sense will still lead to the fact that the will of the Belarusian people will be respected everywhere, both in Belarus and abroad. And in order to bring Belarus out of the crisis, only one real step is needed – to hold new fair presidential elections.”
 Cfr. Megan Specia, Aug. 13, 2020, Who Is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarus’s Unlikely Opposition Leader?, The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/world/europe/belarus-opposition-svetlana-tikhanovskaya.html
 Cfr. https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-alexander-lukashenko-belarus-international-news-elections-c9ba5be40472ac02673a4d8bdec8a9ea
 For further informations please visit: https://belarus-nau.org/en
 BYPOL is an investigative group of former personnel from security services, border troops, and the state prosecutor’s office who quit in response to the violent crackdown against pro-democracy protesters and are collecting evidence of abuses committed by the Belarusian authorities. Cfr. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/04/belarus-lukashenko-protests-election-russia-putin-brutal-crackdown-weapons-ammunition-bypol/
Foto copertina: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya photographed in Brussels on December 15, 2020. Mashid Mohadjerin for TIME