PRAGUE – Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus, says her country’s fate is tied to the outcome of the war Russia started against Ukraine.
“We are aware of our responsibilities related to the war in Ukraine,” Tsikhanouskaya said in an interview at RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters on May 11.
“We understand that we have to fight for Ukraine now to fight for Belarus later,” she said. “We understand that without a free Ukraine there can be no free Belarus.”
Tsikhanouskaya, 39, was a last-minute presidential candidate, standing in for her husband Syarhey Tsikhanouski, whose own run for the presidency ended with his arrest and detention on charges that supporters say were fabricated to keep the popular vlogger out of August , ballot 2020 was derailed.
Fearing for her safety and that of her family, the former English teacher-turned-politician left Belarus the day after the vote that resulted in a sixth term for authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and is leading the Belarusian opposition from Lithuanian exile.
After massive protests over the vote, which the opposition said was rigged, Lukashenka launched a crackdown, often violent, jailing tens of thousands of protesters, most of his political opponents, and silencing independent media.
In response to the situation, the European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have imposed sanctions on him and several senior Belarusian officials.
Isolated and financially weakened, Lukashenka turned to long-time ally Russia for support, and he has since responded in kind, allowing Moscow to launch attacks on Ukraine and supply forces from Belarusian territory.
Tsikhanouskaya said that unlike the country’s leadership, Belarusian citizens are “doing what they can” to support their neighbor.
“By helping Ukraine, we are also helping ourselves. Because if Ukraine wins, it means that the Kremlin is weak and so is Lukashenka. This will open a new window of opportunity for Belarusians to protest and strike.” She said.
In response to questions from RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, about what comes after the fighting ends, Tsikhanouskaya replied that “if Ukraine War wins, the rest will win is up to the Belarusians.”
“How can we make the best use of the moment? How can we weaken [Lukashenka’s] Regime? All our work is aimed at weakening the regime on the one hand and strengthening the Belarusian people on the other,” she said.
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Tsikhanouskaya said her movement started by opening a representative office in Kyiv so she could be in closer contact with Ukrainian officials and the Belarusian diaspora in Ukraine.
Despite the war in Ukraine, the Belarusian opposition has been strengthened by “the 100 percent support of western democratic countries,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
“They support our movement and our quest to change our country,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “And we have been assured that there will be no negotiations behind the Belarusians’ backs. Lukashenka is illegitimate and no one will recognize him until our conditions are met – the release of political prisoners and the end of repressions.”
Since Russia’s February 24 attack on Ukraine, Tsikhanouskaya has done much to remind Western countries that the Lukashenka government must not be seen as representing the Belarusian people.
“When the war started and Belarus became an aggressor in the eyes of other countries, [Western governments] forced to act decisively,” she said. “We have made it clear over time that the Belarusian regime is an aggressor, not the people [of Belarus]…Every visit, every meeting, every phone call we have aims to convey that Belarusians don’t have to pay for Lukashenka’s mistakes.”
“We always say that the sanctions against the Belarusian regime must be as strong as those against Russia, but they should be structured differently,” Tsikhanouskaya said. Sanctions against Belarus should target state-owned companies and banks, and small and private businesses should be protected as much as possible.
She also called on Western countries to extend visas to ordinary Belarusians, especially students, and to find ways to support independent Belarusian media.
“We have also reached out to tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft to put up a tougher fight against them [state] conducting propaganda and helping Belarusian journalists and our people,” she said.
According to the independent Belarusian Union of Journalists, two dozen journalists are currently in detention in Belarus, including Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison in December 2021.
“People turn to heaven and say, ‘Why do we have to go through this?'” she said.
“In the case of the Belarusians, because of our silence, because of our apolitical stance, because we don’t take responsibility for our country. We felt comfortable in our small circle of family and friends. And we are now jointly responsible for this.”