Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya filed to run for president of Belarus in the summer of 2020, becoming an unlikely opposition candidate to the incumbent authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko after other contestants, including her husband, were summarily jailed. She united Belarusian opposition forces and, according to independent observers, won the majority of votes. Official results proclaimed Lukashenko victorious, which led to some of the largest protests in the history of Belarus and a brutal crackdown by the regime.
Now leading a government-in-exile in neighboring Lithuania, Tsikhanouskaya spoke with Wiktor Babinski about her pledge to remove Lukashenko from power and bring about a democratic transition in Belarus.
WB: In order to make Belarus democratic, Alexander Lukashenko and his regime will need to be removed from power. How can this be achieved?
ST: Right now, we have many parallel processes. First of all, we create multiple points of pressure on the regime in order to weaken it. We are also building democratic institutions like an executive power and a proto-parliament, so that when the moment comes we just take those structures and bring them into Belarus. We are also supporting Ukraine in its war effort because the fates of our countries are interconnected. We are facing one enemy. A weak Putin means a weak Lukashenko. When Lukashenko loses the support of Putin it will be easier to get rid of him.
Our task is to make Lukashenko’s regime weaker and civil society stronger. Restoring our national identity is also very important after many years of Russification of Belarus. Russian aggression is not only about tanks, it is also about a creeping, cultural occupation of a country. For this reason, people who continue using the Belarusian language are a threat to Lukashenko. Language has become a weapon in the struggle for the future of Belarus. The events of 2020 galvanized us in the fight for our identity, and now more and more people learn Belarusian history and the Belarusian language.
Our task is also to split the Belarusian elites and show a European alternative for Belarus, so that the people around Lukashenko see that there is no future in Belarus with him, and to make them think twice about whether to support him or to side with the democratic process, which gives Belarus the prospect of a European future.
WB: In order to convince a significant portion of the elite to abandon Lukashenko, will you consider an amnesty for some members of Lukashenko’s elite, including those from the security apparatus?
ST: Since 2020 we have been sending a message to the pro-regime people that if you have committed serious crimes against the people of Belarus, if you committed war crimes against Ukraine, for sure you will be brought to accountability before a court of law. Those who did not do those things might be forgiven. But of course it is up to the people of Belarus to restore justice to our country.
WB: Do you see Russia as an enemy of democratic Belarus?
ST: Nowadays, yes. Russia does not see Belarus or Ukraine as truly independent. They want us to be their regions, or satellites. They want to subjugate us fully, dragging us back into the Soviet past. They refuse to let Belarus and Ukraine choose their own future. The propagandists of Russia and Lukashenko’s regime are working in concert to split our democratic movement, spending money and human resources to defeat us, but so far they have failed.
WB: How should NATO react to the threats that Russia and Lukashenko’s regime pose to the alliance’s eastern flank? What would you like to see happen?
ST: I would like to hear stronger language on this issue. During the last NATO summit there was a message that there is a threat coming from Belarus. What we have to do here is distinguish between the Belarusian regime and the Belarusian people. What should have been said is that the threat comes from the Belarusian regime, which has become an accomplice in the war and an accomplice to Putin, as opposed to the Belarusian people who want to be a reliable partner, who don’t want to be the source of a threat. NATO countries need to send a clear message that Russian troops and nuclear weapons need to be withdrawn from Belarus, and Russia cannot undermine the sovereignty of Belarus.
If there are any negotiations about the future security architecture of our region, these demands should be made to the Kremlin. I think the reaction to Putin’s declaration that he would place nuclear weapons in Belarus was rather weak. From the point of view of NATO countries, there is little difference if the nuclear weapons are in Belarus or Kaliningrad. But for the Belarusian people, this threatens our independence and anchors a Russian presence in our country for many years.
WB: Would membership in the European Union be a goal for your future government?
ST: Yes. Historically, Belarus belongs to Europe. We came under the influence of Russia only about a hundred years ago. We have to return to Europe and join the European Union. This year, during our Freedom Forum, I and other members of the Belarusian opposition signed a joint declaration that a European future has to be the only direction for Belarus. It may be far away, but we have to move in that direction now. First join the Council of Europe and then, step by step, move toward the European Union.
WB: What about NATO?
ST: This is a more difficult question, because this is an issue that for now splits Belarusians more than it unites us. In our situation we have to look for points that unite people. Membership in NATO should be discussed by a free Belarusian society and parliament when it is possible, but not now.
WB: Until the question of military alliances is resolved, how do you plan to ensure the survival of a future democratic Belarus against the Russian threat, presuming that Russia will remain a threat to democracy in the region?
ST: If Belarusians are able to openly discuss joining NATO, then I don’t see how Russia could remain able to influence the situation in Belarus and Ukraine, because those issues are interconnected. If Russia is still able to influence our countries, this means that the war is still going on and Lukashenko is still in power. Our task is to weaken the Kremlin because a weak Kremlin is a weak Lukashenko. In the end, it should be up to the Russian people to choose who will be in power in their country. The democratic community also needs to show its teeth and prove that it is able to defend those countries that want to be democratic. So in any negotiations over the future of our region, Russia needs to commit to respecting the sovereignty of other countries.
WB: What if you were to take power in Belarus while the regime in Russia remained unchanged and there was no possibility to have a serious conversation with them? Would you, for example, seek security guarantees from your Western partners?
ST: We have been discussing this issue since 2020. Without support and guarantees from powerful countries, we will not be able to do a lot on the ground, so long as Putin is supporting Lukashenko. Back in 2020—and we did not know this at the time—there is strong indication that had our revolution prevailed, Russia was ready to send troops to Belarus to protect Lukashenko. However, if our powerful partners were ready to protect us militarily, it would be a red line for the Kremlin.
WB: What will you do if Lukashenko’s regime gets involved in a hot war with Ukraine?
ST: Lukashenko is already involved in this war. If you are talking about the Belarusian army, I don’t believe Belarusian soldiers will fight with Ukrainians. Lukashenko knows this. He would have his army participate if his army were loyal to him.
WB: You think he is afraid for the loyalty of the army?
ST: Of course. Our soldiers would rather defect than fight Ukrainians, and Lukashenko knows this. He is a very sly politician; we are seeing some attempts on his part to untie his boat from the Russian ship. He has congratulated Ukraine on its independence day, and he also congratulated Moldova. This is such cynicism: You gave your country as a launching pad for an attack on your neighbor and then you congratulate that neighbor on its independence even as rockets launched from your territory are falling on it. He is trying to maneuver but he has lost all trust and legitimacy, so I doubt that he has the power to even give such an order. He has around himself a couple thousand military people loyal to him, his private security office. Maybe they will protect him, but they will not go fight a war for him, especially against the experienced Ukrainian army that has grown so much stronger.
WB: Do you think Putin will manage to push Lukashenko into an open war?
ST: During all those months we have never seen signs that Putin is really trying to push Lukashenko into something. Lukashenko is ready to prove his loyalty in any way. If he had been given an order to join this war, he would have. Above all though, we need to understand that Lukashenko is already in this war. Stop thinking that he is somewhere on the sidelines. He allowed the first missiles of this war to be launched from Belarus. Bucha was bombed from Belarus. The first Russian assault was launched from Belarus. He needs to be held as fully accountable for this war as Putin.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition and head of the United Transitional Cabinet of the Republic of Belarus.
Wiktor Babinski is a graduate student studying history at Yale University.
The author would like to recognize Club Alpbach Poland for its partnership in the making of this interview. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Image: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya holding a photograph of her husband, one of numerous opposition figures who have been imprisoned under Alexander Lukashenko's regime. (Credit: Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya)
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