Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Belarusian Freedom and the War in Ukraine

| May 31, 2023

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the current Belarusian opposition leader. An advocate for a democratic Belarus, Tsikhanouskaya ran in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, which international observers considered neither free nor fair. While the elections did not remove President Lukashenka, the head of the country’s regime from power, they made clear that a large share of Belarusians were no longer willing to live under an authoritarian regime. Protests against election rigging across Belarus were unprecedented in scale and length. Up to 2 million people of out a total of 7.5 million voters actively participated in these protests, which lasted 4 months before they were brutally suppressed. Arrests, torture, and repression against protesters continue to this day. Following the arrest of Tsikhanouskaya’s politically active husband, threats against her family, and numerous harassment incidents by Belarusian authorities, she was abducted, kidnapped, psychologically abused, and forced out of the country.

Considered by millions of Belarusians and international observers as the rightful winner of the elections, Tsikhanouskaya leads the Belarusian pro-democracy movement from exile. In August 2020, she created the United Transitional Cabinet to prepare a peaceful transition of power. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tsikhanouskaya advocated for a domestic anti-war movement and became an outspoken supporter of Ukrainian independence. In early March 2023, Belarusian authorities sentenced her in-absentia to a 15-year jail term for “conspiracy to seize state power.” In an interview with Belfer Center Fellow Svenja Meike Kirsch, she addresses her vision for Belarusian domestic politics, the country’s road to democracy, the war in Ukraine, and hopes for EU and U.S. support of her people’s aspiration for freedom.

Svenja Meike Kirsch: Prior to the war in Ukraine and immediately following the 2020 Belarusian elections, in which you ran against Lukashenka, mass protests erupted in Belarus. These protests were motivated by allegations of widespread electoral fraud. You claimed that instead of the official 10.12%, you received around 60 to 70% of the vote. Within the context of these protests, how strong do you believe the will of the Belarusian people is for change and for democracy?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Before 2020, few Belarusians thought about what it means to live in a democracy. Few people thought about how their day-to-day lives could be improved. As a result of the legacy of the Soviet Union and the longevity of the Lukashenka regime, there is no institutionalized democratic culture. Our mothers and fathers got used to not being able to change anything in Belarus; they got used to being powerless. But something changed in my generation. My generation grew up with the opportunity to travel, to educate ourselves, to attend foreign universities, and to compare the development of our country with the development of others. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Poland for example started out in a similar economic and political position as Belarus. However, since then, Poland’s development that made it an EU member far outperformed the development of Belarus. If anything, one might even consider the economic and political situation in Belarus today to be worse than in 1991.

Many young Belarusians, who recognize these differences, asked themselves: Why is it that despite our geographical position, we are not a prosperous country? What can we do to improve our situation? What can we do to become equally prosperous as our neighbors? The answer is because of poor management and because of human rights violations. People cannot rely on the rule of law in Belarus, and politics used to only be discussed in people’s kitchen as people were afraid of persecution. Before 2020, you would occasionally hear about people organizing in small groups, but their activity usually ended in them being sent to prison or disappearing.

SMK: But something changed with the 2020 presidential elections.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: During the presidential elections of 2020, people saw each other vote for me – as I was the only real alternative to Lukashenka. They saw each other on the streets protesting the regime. As a result, a lot of Belarusians recognized that they share a desire to change the course of our country. They understood that most Belarusians want the country to be a democracy, in which no one person decides everything, and in which democratic institutions protect the people of Belarus and not just its leader. We see how democratic institutions work across Europe, which is why when we talk about democracy, we think about a pro-European pathway to development of our country. Belarusians always felt part of the European family of countries, but in the absence of democracy we never had a chance to openly proclaim this feeling domestically.

Expressing this feeling became even harder after the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Most Belarusians don’t want to be connected with Russia. We regard our nation as being fundamentally different from the Russian nation. And Belarusians don’t support Russia’s war in Ukraine. We don’t support Lukashenka’s support of Putin’s invasion, and despite the intense repression (we have thousands of political prisoners and every day about 15 to 17 people are detained) people continue to resist the regime. Yes, standing up for change and democracy is difficult.

There are a lot of obstacles, especially with many of our beloved ones being in jail. But, in my opinion, this current moment in Belarusian history is very different from earlier attempts to change something. We want to bring down the Belarusian regime. We want to democratize the country. I recognize that overthrowing the regime is only part of the job. We also need to democratize society as a whole and build democratic institutions. It’s a long road to democracy in Belarus, but the movement that I am leading is already starting to communicate democratically and thinking about how to build democratic institutions. For now, my work on advancing democracy continues from exile, but ultimately, I hope that it will be at the heart of democratization from within Belarus.

SMK: You alluded to the role that fear plays in Belarusian civil society. Over the course of history, authoritarian leader like Lukashenka have heavily relied on fear to keep citizens from speaking up. In leading the movement for a democratic Belarus, you seem fearless. What do you think will it take for Belarusians to go out and protest again despite fear of being arrested?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Any new uprising against the Lukashenka regime will depend on a combination of factors. It of course depends on civil society. Belarusian civil society and democratic aspirations are still very much alive. Civil society is not dead, democratic organizing just went underground. I am communicating with Belarusian society constantly and hear many people express their desire to bravely rise up against the government. But given the situation in Belarus, where publicly speaking up against the government or the war in Ukraine can result in a 10-to-15-year jail sentence, mass pro-democracy rallies are not really feasible. The price is simply too high, and people are scared.

A new protest wave against the Belarusian government will also depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. We understand that the fate of Belarus and Ukraine is intertwined. We face the same enemy. Some officials in the government agree with this perception. It might be that some of these people speak up and start fighting the regime from the inside. These people should also fight the imperialistic ambitions of Russia and the Kremlin’s political influence on Belarus. With the Russian influence on the Belarusian government and Russian troop presence on Belarusian territory, there is little to no possibility to organize an effective mass uprising. We want peaceful change in our country. We don’t want people to become victims in the fight for democracy because we don’t want to be on the same level as a dictatorship. We are convinced that Ukraine will be victorious, which will hopefully cause internal troubles for Putin’s regime. We hope that because of these troubles, Putin won’t be able to continue supporting Lukashenka economically and politically. I see it as our task now to keep increasing the pressure on the Belarusian regime, both from outside and from inside the country. This entails supporting civil society in keeping the regime busy and ensuring that Lukashenka’s government cannot strengthen itself.

Other factors that might impact whether people will uprise include the very real possibility of a split of elites leading to a potential coup d’état, and the attention of the international community to Belarus’ pro-democracy movement. Elites watch closely what is going on. Many members of the elite have likely already realized that there might not be a viable future for them with Lukashenka in power because he is not recognized in the democratic world. I truly hope that nobody will make any deals with him, which could help embolden those members of the elite that are skeptical about the feasibility of the regime in the long-term. Once some of these conditions are in place, I am sure that most activists that fled the country will return to support an uprising. What concerns us though is the lack of international attention to Belarus. Understandably, the focus of the international community lies on the war in Ukraine, and we support this given that Ukrainians are not only fighting for their land but also for democratic values. We urge out political partners not to leave consideration of Belarus’ future for a later time, because we regard Belarus to be part of the broader regional crisis that the war in Ukraine represents. We believe that this crisis should be solved in the context of the Belarusian plight for democracy. Otherwise, we might one day wake up and see that Belarus is given as a consolation prize to Putin. This must be prevented at all costs. It is important that our democratic allies declare that any attempts to seize Belarus will not be tolerated and that respecting Belarusian independence is not just about Belarusian society but about democracy more generally.

SMK: Earlier this month, you were sentenced in-absentia to a 15-year jail term for alleged “conspiracy to seize state power”. Obviously, this verdict represents yet another attempt by the regime to break you. Understandably, you've been living in exile. What is the way forward that you image for yourself to advance your cause of creating a democratic Belarus? What is your strategy to create conditions for a transition to democracy from exile?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: It was hard to go into exile. But I know that if I would be in Belarus, I would be in prison, and this would not help the movement. From exile, I made it my priority to advocate for Belarus to remain on the international agenda. Since 2020, we have ensured that different parliaments of the world spoke about us. This helped Belarus to no longer be perceived as just being a satellite state of Russia, which is governed by a leader that is a puppet of Putin. Through our activism, we are showing the world that Lukashenka does not represent our country. My goal is to move Belarus closer to Europe and Europe closer to Belarus. I am grateful to those democratic countries that support our movement. Through them, the voices of the Belarusian people are finally starting to be heard. As a result of our work, more countries are now working with the democratic forces of Belarus than with ambassadors of Putin’s Lukashenka regime. International representatives are sent to Lithuania, where I am currently based, instead of to Belarus.

It is my task now to unite all the Belarusian pro-democracy initiatives and to ensure coordination between different political groups and NGOs. What is important is that I don’t try to impose my views on how democracy should look like on them, because I firmly believe that all voices need to be heard to advance democracy in Belarus. Through my activism, I also hope to prevent foreign governments from negotiating any deals with Lukashenka to prevent him from e.g., using the freeing of political prisoners as a bargaining chip for the lifting of sanctions as he has done in the past. Through my outspokenness, which is the result of my anger directed at the regime, I also see it as my task to inspire other Belarusians. For me, this means not just communicating with other Belarusian activists in exile, but also understanding what people in Belarus think could bring the regime down. Maybe counterintuitively, many Belarusians for example think that despite their impact on the general population, sanctions should be even tougher because they support the efforts of pro-democracy political activists.

SMK: In February 2022, Putin invaded Ukraine. In doing so, Putin was aided by Belarusian President Lukashenka, who allowed Putin to launch part of the offensive from Belarusian territory. There is speculation that Belarus might take an even more active role in the war. Immediately following the invasion, you advocated for an anti-war movement. What has been the impact of that movement and what do you perceive to be the average Belarusian’s perception of the war and of Belarus’ role in it?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Until immediately before the war, we didn’t want to believe that Russia would invade Ukraine. Belarusians always had a good relationship with Ukrainians, which was exemplified in 2014 when Belarusians sympathized with Ukraine’s pro-democracy protests. That’s why, Lukashenka dragging our peaceful people into this war as a supporter of the aggressor came as a surprise for the average citizen. Belarusians never wanted this war. It is not the Belarusian people, but the Lukashenka regime that is Putin’s accomplice. At the beginning of the war, I felt that it was important to show Ukrainians and the world that Belarusians do not endorse the regime’s support of Putin. They have bravely done so by joining the anti-war movement and by risking their own lives in support of Ukraine’s right to independence from Russia.

The anti-war movement is not something I created; yet I fully endorse it. As part of the movement, average Belarusians bravely stepped up to e.g., disrupt Russian trains passing through Belarus. Every day, one could observe small acts of disobedience. Although people knew they would be detained and tortured in Belarus’ prisons afterwards, several anti-war rallies took place in Minsk. It took as little as singing Ukrainian songs or donating to the Ukrainian army to be detained by the regime. Since the outbreak of the war, many alternative media outlets had to leave the country but most of them continue to counter the Belarusian pro-Russian propaganda from abroad. In addition to people spreading truthful information on social media to counter official propaganda, a network of volunteer-led small newspapers in rural areas of Belarus help ensure that the war in Ukraine stays on top of the agenda, also for older people. These news outlets help illustrate the brutality of the Russian war to average Belarusians, who might otherwise forget or not know at all about the murders and war crimes that Russia commits in Ukraine. What is probably most remarkable is that some Belarusian men fled the country to actively support the Ukrainian army. These actions in Belarus, combined with anti-war rallies of Belarusians abroad prove that we are not aggressors and that it is Lukashenka who must bear the full responsibility for his support of the Russian crimes. For too long has there been impunity. Closing with international sanctions associated loopholes is a first step in the right direction. But still more resources and pressure are needed.

SMK: You spoke about having to go into exile and leading Belarus’ democracy movement from there. Let’s talk a little bit more about the personal cost that leading this movement has created. The prison sentence that the Lukashenka regime issued against you comes after your husband’s arrest for his political activism, and threats about putting your children in an orphanage. From this context, it becomes clear that leading a political movement for change in Belarus comes at a huge personal cost. Yet, you come across as a fearless and extremely brave leader. Why do you remain more determined than ever to conduct your political activity?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: My first steps into politics were the result of my husband’s detention. He was supposed to run in the presidential elections of 2020; I was just an ordinary citizen. But out of my love for my husband grew my love for my country, and my determination to carry his political activism forward. During my presidential campaign, I interacted with so many Belarusians who want change and this experience instilled in me a sense of responsibility - not just for my family but for my people. I want to help build a better country for our children; I don’t want the next generation to live in fear. My personal motivation will always remain my husband and his absence leaves a deep mark in my family. Seeing my children grow up without him and being unable to tell them when they will see him is tough. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, sometimes I wonder whether I am carrying too much on my shoulders. But ultimately, it is the thought of our political prisoners’ suffering and their moral and physical humiliation, that makes me want to keep fighting. I don’t want to betray these people and hope to help make their sacrifice worth something. My team and our international supporters also give me strength to carry on. Quite simply, it is also my anger, specifically anger about inhumane treatment in prisons, that transforms into strength. And as long as I have the physical and moral strength, I will keep fighting for our political prisoners, for our independence, and for future generations. In doing so, I am doing everything in my power to ensure that our movement for democracy stays united, despite attempts of the regime to break us.

SMK: You spoke a lot about your hopes for Belarus. What more can EU and U.S. policymakers do to support you and your people's ambition to create a democratic Belarus?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: We managed to build this coalition of countries that want to help Belarusians, which is very important for our movement. But even for these countries, including the U.S. and EU members, it can be hard to help advance our cause from the outside, especially because dictators do not respect international law. In thinking about what more can be done, I want to emphasize the importance of consistency. If you declare that Lukashenka is not the rightful president and that he lost the elections, then isolate him politically. Don’t engage with representatives of his government. Instead, communicate with the internationally recognized democratic forces. Distinguish Belarus from Russia. Differentiate between the Belarusian regime and the Belarusian people. Remember that dictators cannot be appeased or re-educated. Emphasize the importance of accountability and use international courts including the ICC and the ICJ to initiate a process, that albeit long, can one day hold Lukashenka accountable. By starting this process, show that you will not forget about the Belarusian regime’s crimes. Relatedly, don’t overlook criminal occupation, which the Russian presence of troops on Belarusian territory represents. When you demand withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, demand withdrawal of Russian troops from Belarus as well. Don’t leave the issue of Belarus for a later time. Importantly, practice a dual track approach of sanctions combined with political isolation of Lukashenka to exercise maximum pressure on the regime. I also ask EU countries and the U.S. to keep Belarus on their agenda. All too often our cause of creating a democratic Belarus is forgotten when some of my visits to foreign countries conclude.

Don’t forget about Belarusian political prisoners; their wellbeing should be priority number one. Although I understand that there might be little that foreign governments can do to directly improve the conditions of these prisoners, they should step up humanitarian aid to their families. Knowing that their families are taken care of will ease the mental hardship that political prisoners face. To date, no humanitarian aid of this kind exists. Together with foreign partners, we should fundraise to support these families. Support can come from businesses and governments, which currently is very hard to attract. Through humanitarian aid, we also want to ensure that should a political prisoner be released, there are means for psychological and physical rehabilitation available. To date no such means exist. Be creative about humanitarian aid. Simple gestures can  make a huge difference. For instance, consider inviting 10 to 15 children of political prisoners to your country for their school holidays.

Apart from policymakers, it is also businesses, and particularly social media platforms and IT companies, that can help. We started working with companies such as Google or Meta to persuade them to help strengthen Belarusian national identity. We have for example asked them to offer Belarusian as a language option. However, the results of our work aren’t very good. Progress has been slow. It seems like it will take some more time for these companies to regard Belarus as an independent country, and not as a region of Russia. We also see that there are some Western companies that continue to uphold business ties to pro-regime businesses in Belarus. We would love for these companies to cut these ties and to show solidarity with the Belarusian people. Although many of these acts might seem small by themselves, they will help keep Belarus on the agenda, which would be an important contribution to our fight for democracy.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kirsch, Svenja.“Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Belarusian Freedom and the War in Ukraine.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, May 31, 2023.

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