VOA Interview: Belarusian Opposition Leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Responding to a series of questions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the leader of the Belarusian opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told VOA that the democratic world should not be “putting the [Alexander Lukashenko] regime and the Belarusian people into one basket.”
“Here, it’s very important to distinguish the Belarusian regime that became accomplice to Russian invasion of the war (in Ukraine) and the Belarusian people, who are against this war and who are supporting Ukrainians in this situation,” said Tsikhanouskaya in a sit-down interview with VOA’s New York Bureau Chief Ihar Tsikhanenka.
Tsikhanouskaya, who is attending the United Nations General Assembly as a member of an unnamed European country’s delegation this week, said that Belarus should not be viewed as “appendix to Russia,” even though [Russian President] “Vladimir Putin wants to drag it back to the Soviet era.”
Lukashenko, who has been in power in Belarus since 1994, has faced a domestic legitimacy crisis since declaring himself the winner of a sixth presidential term in a disputed 2020 election. Rights activists and opposition politicians, as well as the United States and European Union, allege the poll was rigged.
A crackdown by the Lukashenko regime has pushed most opposition politicians to leave the country fearing for their safety.
Last month, Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin’s who allowed Russia to stage attacks on neighboring Ukraine from Belarus, wished Ukrainians peaceful skies and success “in restoring a decent life.” He said current disputes could not destroy centuries-old good relations between the Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: It’s been exactly a year and two months since our last interview in Washington, D.C. And so much has happened in the world since then, particularly in the region that you come from. But for now, tell me, please, what are you doing here at the United Nations General Assembly? What are your plans? What’s your agenda?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So, first of all, it’s very important to install a good relationship with the U.N. and we understand that the representatives of the regime of Belarus presented here and for us, for democratic society, for democratic movement of Belarus it’s very important that our voice is also heard. So it’s important for us to be here to promote our alternative messages and for two years, we see that the U.N. is trying to do a lot toward Belarus, but much more can be done. And our task is to promote our ideas, to discuss how else the U.N. can be helpful in our situation.
VOA: So you’re saying Lukashenko’s government is represented here by certain people and who are you representing here?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I’m representing here the Belarusians who are fighting against a dictator in our country. For two years, we are fighting with this cruel machine, with this regime under repressions and tortures, hundreds, thousands of people are in prisons. Hundreds of thousands had to flee Belarus because of the repression. But we want to build another country. People don’t agree to live under dictatorship anymore. And we are making steps towards a democratic Belarus.
VOA: And who invited you here?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: We are a part of one of the European countries’ delegations and I have to say that a lot of countries want to help us, to help girls and boys to be held in different organizations. So I will not name what country helped us this time. But, you know, there are a lot of them who want to help.
VOA: You will have a lot of what’s called bilats, so bilateral meetings with heads of state, their cabinet members. What are your main top two, three messages to the world leaders?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know, Belarus now is discussed together with Ukraine because Belarus is beside Ukraine. Belarus became collaborators in this war and here it is very important to distinguish the Belarusian regime that became an accomplice to Russian invasion of the war and Belarusian people who are against this war, who are supporting Ukrainians in this situation. So don’t put the regime and the Belarusian people into one basket. Second is that Belarus and Russia are two different issues, because in Belarus there is an understanding that we are not part of the regime. We are not part of Russia. We are not like an appendix to Russia and our two cases have to be approached differently. And the third one, maybe, is that the U.N. and democratic countries have to be braver and consistent in this situation, in the situation of Belarus and of course Ukraine. Consistency is our weapon, unity is our weapon. And I understand that there was some fatigue about the Russian situation and moreover there is some fatigue about the Ukrainian situation, but we do not have the right to give up now. You know it’s easy to say that look, almost everything is done. What else can we do? You don’t have the right to give up at this very crucial moment so be with us, stay with us, help as much as you can. And together we have to bring our country to democracy.
VOA: The last two years have been particularly hard for you. Your own husband has been imprisoned by the Lukashenko regime only because he dared to run against Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for the last 28 years, and your husband was sent to jail for 18 years. It must be tough for you and it speaks volumes about your courage that you stepped in and ran instead of your husband. And it looks like, according to some, to most monitors of the elections, you beat Alexander Lukashenko. And in retrospect, do you have any regrets about this period over the last two years? What are your regrets? What are your joys? In other words, what makes you proud of what you’ve accomplished so far?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I’m proud by Belarusians. You know, I did what I could in these circumstances, but it’s all Belarusians who sacrifice their comfort, their life, their families, some freedoms, you know, but they understand that they want to live in another country. They want to change our country for democratic and the people are not given up and even every small step of the ordinary Belarusians contributes to these changes. So I think that we achieved a lot during these two years. We are staying united as never before. We managed to build a strong coalition of different democratic countries who are supporting us. We managed to revive the old media that had been ruined in Belarus. Of course, not everything is achieved, so thousands of political prisoners are still in prisons. We didn’t manage to split elites in Belarus. You can say that our strikes failed, but the fact that we are continuing is a huge advantage for us because we don’t have the right to give up now when people are still in prison. So we are continuing to create multiple points of pressure on the regime from inside the country, outside the country in order to make this regime understand that nothing is forgotten, nothing is forbidden. And we will fight this regime until we gain our goals.
VOA: Speaking of people who are still in prisons, how often do you hear from your husband? Do you talk to him on the phone? Do you get a chance to receive mail from him?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Actually, it’s very difficult to reach political prisoners and the only way, almost the only way, is to communicate through the lawyer. The lawyer visits my husband and the other prisoners, and we can send messages like this. In 2020 our prisoners got a lot of letters from people. Now, the regime doesn’t allow these letters to be delivered to them. So the regime wants our heroes in prisons to feel that they are abandoned, that everybody has forgotten about them, but it’s not so. We are continuing to work on the release of all of them. My letters are not delivered as well, but the letters of my children are delivered and the only way for my husband to see how the children are growing, that our younger daughter is starting to write letters. You know it’s very important for him to see how they’re growing up.
VOA: I know you have two kids, two little kids. One is becoming a teenager, I believe. How are they taking this? Do they understand who their mother is? Do they understand where their dad is?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: My daughter is 7, the son is 12 and, yes, they do understand. They saw their daddy the last time two years ago. It was more difficult for me to explain to my younger daughter what’s going on, why your daddy is not telling fairy tales every evening to her. But they know who Lukashenko is, that he’s putting people in jail because they don’t want change in our country. On the primitive level, they realize. But my task is to make everything possible so that my children don’t feel that their daddy is somewhere apart because we are watching movies with him. The pictures of my husband are everywhere in my house for my children to feel the presence of their daddy in their life.
VOA: You touched a bit in one of your previous answers on the Ukraine topic. Obviously, I’d like to talk to you extensively about this. Are you in touch with President Voldoymyr Zelenskyy on what’s going on there on the ground?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: We haven’t met with the President Zelenskyy, and we can really understand the cautiousness about meeting with me. But we understood more before the start of the war because they didn’t want to spoil the relationship with the regime because they were afraid that war could start only from our territory. But after the 24th of February, when from Belarusian territory in the south had been launched, everything became understandable, but still there was no open communication with President Zelensky, but my team is working with his advisers, with the [Ukraine Foreign Minister] Dmytro Kuleba only working level and we see that they understand Belarusians. They know that we want to contribute to their victory, but still there are some obstacles that, you know, that influence our relationship.
VOA: A lot of people in the West and, obviously, especially in Ukraine view Belarus and Belarusians as co-aggressors because as you mentioned earlier, Alexander Lukashenko offered its territory for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to attack Ukraine. How did it make you feel when you found out about it? And how do you think most Belarusians feel about it?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I think that it’s a huge shock for the Belarussian people that Belarus became quite aggressive in this war, especially in the war against Ukrainians, because for many, many years and we had a wonderful relationship as nations, and our soldiers, for example, they don’t want to go and fight against Ukrainians. And it was one of the reasons why our army wasn’t sent to Ukraine to fight alongside the Russians, because the regime knew about the mood among soldiers, that they would definitely defect, change sides, but will not go and, you know, fight to preserve Lukashenko and Putin. They don’t want to fight with Ukrainians. So, of course, people are scared with the war, of course, but they are against the war and they showed this very clearly. And for the first time since 2020, a huge rally took place in Minsk, in this anti-war inspiration. And on this day, about 2,000 people have been detained. So now not only are you an enemy of the regime, not only if you are against the regime, but also if you are against the war.
VOA: Over the course of the last two years, you’ve been meeting with a lot of European leaders and their cabinet members and understand regional politics rather well by now. Why do you think Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: As I understand, he doesn’t see Ukraine or Belarus as separate independent and sovereign countries. He wants to track us back to this Soviet era when countries are dependent on the Kremlin, but we are independent countries. He wants to show his empire ambitions, he doesn’t understand that the Belarusians and Ukrainians already formed as nations. They cherish their identity. They cherish their language. So we want to move forward. We don’t want to be part of the Soviet Union again. And the difference between Ukraine and Belarus is that Lukashenko was like an accomplice of Putin, and he gave our territory up without any fight, he became cooperant, it was easy for him, and the Ukrainians like are fighting for the territories. So if in 2020 the democratic movement won, maybe this war wouldn’t even happen.
VOA: Given what happened on February 24th, what Vladimir Putin has done, in one sentence, who is he to you today?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: He’s the person who doesn’t respect nations, who can sacrifice with the lives of his own people, with the lives of persons in the Ukrainian to gain his ambitions and that’s it. He doesn’t think about people, he doesn’t think about international law, he wants to, you know, to leave something huge behind him, but he’s failed.
VOA: Like a legacy?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah. But he’s leaving destroyed countries. He’s destroyed [the] fates of people.
VOA: Speaking of that, what is preventing Vladimir Putin from doing the same to your country?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I think that it’s the presence of the regime there. Lukashenko is very convenient for Putin, you know, he fulfills all the orders, he for sure doesn’t control any military people inside our country, military sites. So Lukashenko, Putin just needs such a person in this regime, and he knows that Lukashenko is dependent on him. Without Putin’s support, Lukashenko wouldn’t survive in 2020. I mean politically survive.
VOA: Some say that Ukraine’s victory over Russia might be the best chance of Belarus becoming a democratic society. Would you agree with that?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I would say that the victory of Ukraine will give us the opportunity to use this chance, because we understand that when Ukrainians win, it means that Putin is weak, hence, Lukashenko is weak, and we will have to uprise again. We will have to use all the organizations that have been launched since 2020, to use all our political power and human power, you know, to get rid of the regime. For sure the fate of Belarus and the fate of Ukraine are interconnected. But I have to say that you can’t solve only the Ukrainian crisis, because our countries are interconnected, and without free Belarus, there will be no safety for Ukrainians as well. There will be a constant threat to Ukraine and to our Western neighbors. So Belarus is part of this crisis and this crisis has to be solved.
VOA: At the Belarus Democratic forum that was held last month in Vilnius, some criticized you for being too “indecisive.” They said that the Belarusian democratic forces have to become more aggressive. They have to become, in a way, more violent and assertive. Some even suggested that you have to create your own alternative army to overthrow the Lukashenko regime because clearly peaceful protest hasn’t worked. It’s been over two years now. What are your thoughts on that?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I still believe in the peaceful decision of the recent crisis. We need more support. We need more assistance from our democratic neighbors. But I understand why these voices rise. Some people are disappointed with the democratic forces, but that’s why we decided to create and organize this United Transitional Cabinet where the representative on military affairs appeared. I understand that military people don’t hear me because I’m not an authority for them. I can’t speak the same language with them. But this person who became representative, his ex-colonel, he knows how to speak, he knows how to proceed, he will get the proper words, you know, to communicate with military officers inside the country. Of course, he helps those military volunteers who are fighting in Ukraine at the moment. I really don’t think that it’s possible to create an alternative army. We don’t have our own territory and no one country will allow us to create an army on their territory, but to train people, to train partisans, can be crucial in one moment.
VOA: If you don’t believe in the military resolution of the problem, why did you get that person into your Cabinet that is a colonel of the army, retired colonel?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Like the military part can be a part of changes, but it’s not the only source of changes in our country. And now our military volunteers in Ukraine, the fact that this person is communicating with law enforcement in Belarus, you know, in the army creates stress for the regime. They understand that there can be a crisis or split among the army, that they are not loyal to the Lukashenko regime. So it’s like steps forwards, but, for example, the same partisans are also very dangerous for the regime. So they can play their role in changes. But I will try to do everything possible so that this role will not be main.
VOA: Let me ask you about your former colleagues, your former allies, people who were originally with you and it looks like you no longer communicate with them. They criticize you, they say that you stole the limelight, the spotlight, and you do not share the resources with them and you are holding on to power. What is your response to those people? Is that true?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I hear the voices that criticize me, but I think that we have to be united. … I didn’t do anything against, you know, Belarusians, and all this gossip about resources, about power, you know it’s not true. We are welcoming all the people who want to work together with us or separately but in one direction. So let’s be together. It’s not necessary to be in one building, at one table, but when you see that you are working in the direction of getting rid of the regime, everybody’s welcome. And it’s very painful to see that the opposition structures are organized in opposition and democratic forces because our task is not to quarrel, is not to fight with each other, our task is to fight with the regime, but politics are unpredictable.
VOA: Have you made any mistakes in the last two years that you really regret?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Maybe I made mistakes before my participation in the presidential election. My mistake is that I, the same or similar to Belarusians who weren’t involved in politics, I also thought, “What can I do? How can I help?” and lived my own life. As for political mistakes, you know, history will judge us and maybe something could be done better. Who knows? But we were in certain circumstances and, you know, at that moment, I thought that these were important steps. But, anyway, we can’t change anything, so we have to look forward.
VOA: Let’s transfer from that historic perspective here back to New York, to the United Nations General Assembly. What is your message to the Belarusian people?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: It’s difficult times for our country. We have to protect the very existence of our country, the independence and sovereignty of Belarus. But I ask you to stay brave as you have been brave for all these months. I ask you to support each other, to support those who are in a worse position than you are at the moment. And I know that we are not giving up, that we will not give up. I am so proud of you, that you and we understand the responsibility for our country at last. That we woke up at last. And I, from my side, I will do everything possible to be a voice here in our international agenda, but I need all of you and we need each other, and let’s stay together. Let’s stay united and I’m sure we will win.
VOA: Can you please share your personal emotions at this moment? How does it make you feel to be here at the United Nations General Assembly and represent your people?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I’m proud that I can represent such wonderful, hard-working, and brave persons who are not giving up, who know the price of democracy, and who have the right to remind democratic countries that it’s so easy to lose democracy and so difficult to gain it. And on behalf of all Belarussians, I ask you to be with us, no matter how long it will last. And I’m proud. I’m proud to be here as part of a free Belarus.