“Dictators are not endless”, He says Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The leader of the democratic opposition of Belarus says it for the autocrat of her country, Alexander Lukashenko. But he also says so Vladimir Putinwho manages the Belarusian president like a puppet, his main ally in the ukrainian war and in the diffuse messianic plans that he intends to sell as a patriotic deed.
Tsikhanouskaya knows firsthand Lukashenko’s authoritarian steamroller, immovable since 27 years in power. After the arrest of her husband, opposition activist Sergei Tsikhanouski, just two days after announcing her intention to run in the 2020 elections, she took her place to do battle. The strong man won anyway, conscientiously manipulating the system. The final act of that charade was a revolt against the government and a repression out of series.
The invasion of Ukraine launched last February put Belarus back on the map, for its strategic alliance with Putin’s Russiaand converted, in the words of Tsikhanouskaya, “on an aircraft carrier” for Russian military equipment and armaments.
But the family grievance, the electoral scandal, the continuous repression, and now the war, made this unarmed warrior stronger and stronger. Tsikhanouskaya struggles with the conviction of the word since her exile in Lithuaniawhere he coordinates dissidence in his country, or bustling around European capitals, committing governments and institutions to the democratic cause.
“Without peace in our country, there will be no peace in the entire region,” Tsikhanuskaya said in dialogue via Zoom with THE NATION. And he warned that, should he win this war, Putin’s intentions are to keep going for more.
-To what extent has the internal situation in Belarus worsened since the 2020 elections?
-After Lukashenko did not recognize his failure, a huge number of people took to the streets to question the situation. This led to a massive repression, around 50,000 people were arrested and hundreds of thousands had to flee the country. There are currently 1,238 political prisoners, and the number continues to grow because there are new arrests every day. So during these two years Lukashenko intensified his tyranny and repression to scare the people. Now there is no visible lifting because it is too dangerous. People are sentenced to 15, 18, 20 years in prison just for participating in peaceful demonstrations. They are considered terrorists. The alternative media was bankrupted and declared extremist, and the regime also bankrupted some 800 NGOs. Lukashenko wants to end everything that lives in Belarus to promote his dictatorship.
-How are they managing from the dissidence?
-Our strategy is to exhaust the regime as much as possible and force it to release political prisoners and initiate dialogue on fair elections. So we ask our democratic partners not to stop putting pressure on Lukashenko, an accomplice of Putin who gave up our sovereignty. He and his henchmen must be expelled from all international organizations and from any international context. And we need help on the ground, to those who organize clandestine initiatives against the regime, to the free media and to people who had to flee the country. Any possible help so that the people do not feel abandoned, to have energy to continue our fight.
– Do you think it is essential to link both things, the internal dissident movement and the external situation? Is helping Belarusian democracy going to help the entire region?
-Of course it will help. Belarus is historically a European country. In recent history, the USSR caught Belarus in its hands, but we have to understand that Ukraine and Belarus are part of the European family, and the Belarusian people want changes in the country. We are fed up with the dictatorship, and I think that the people of Argentina will understand it easily, because you also went through the same difficulties. I’m sure they feel the same way we do right now. And I have to say that as long as the dictator is in power in Belarus, he will be a constant threat to our neighbors, especially now, in these new circumstances, when the war broke out in Ukraine and Lukashenko became a collaborator, an accomplice of Putin. He gave our land as a huge aircraft carrier for military equipment. It will be a constant danger to all of our neighboring countries, and especially now that Russia threatens nuclear power. Of course, without peace in our country, there will be no peace in the entire region. If, for example, the Ukrainian issue is resolved, but this dictator remains in power and is an accomplice of Putin, there will be 1,000 kilometers of borders with NATO countries for new threats.
-We don’t know much about what happens with the Russian public opinion, but you have said that a high percentage of Belarusians are against the war, and that could be a difference with Russia. Do you think that consensus can function as a springboard towards democracy?
–86% of the Belarusian people do not support the participation of Belarus in this war. But we have to distinguish the Belarusian regime from the Belarusian people, we are at odds. In Russia the situation is different, propaganda works very hard to get the population on their side. But in Belarus the situation is absolutely different. Since the beginning of the war, the Belarusian people declared themselves against the war. Russian troops passed through Belarus to bomb Ukraine, to bomb Bucha, they used Belarusian airports and different military sites to launch missiles at Ukraine. So our partisans cut off the trains to stop the Russian team. About 80 acts of sabotage were carried out to stop the Russian troops, to break these logistical schemes. Ordinary people also took photos of Russian equipment, planes, various machines passing through our country, and sent this information to the Ukrainian army. They are ordinary people, they understand the consequences, they could receive death sentences or years in prison, but they understand that we have to stand with the Ukrainians. The fact that the Russian troops did not feel safe in Belarus was one of the factors why the Russians withdrew from kyiv.
-How is the relationship with Putin’s Russia?
-In fact we are under russian occupation. Because Lukashenko can hardly make decisions about Russian troops in Belarus and he has to agree with Putin all the time. Putin has him on a short leash. Because in 2020, after the electoral scandal, Lukashenko survived thanks to the support of Putin. And he is now paying off his debts by giving him our land. Only thanks to two years of resistance to this regime, many people managed to save the face of our country, showing that we are not enemies of the Ukrainians. Lukashenko is a collaborator, he is already participating in this war. But he is not the people. He is against the opinion of the Belarusian people.
-How strong are these two elements, the democratic movement and the heroic Belarusians that you mentioned, on the one hand, and Putin on the other?
-We are not fighting with Putin. We are fighting with the dictatorship in our country. This is the beginning of our revolution. We have always said that our uprising is not geopolitical. We want to solve our internal problem. It is not for or against Russia. It is in favor of Belarus. We have no weapons, we can only fight with our intelligence. We have to be creative in this resistance, because Lukashenko has built for 27 years a vertical power, where the forces of order are loyal to him because they are connected with different ties. But for two years, despite the terror, the tyranny, the repression and the fear of the people, our movement has been alive. For two years we have got enough support, political support and technical support from democratic countries to keep our energy up. Because without the alternative media, correct information could not be given to people in Belarus, not even about the war. The regime’s propaganda reiterates the Kremlin’s narrative: the denazification of Ukraine and all these things, and we want to show people the reality.
-What do you think are Putin’s plans regarding Belarus? Does he think he wants a huge Russia?
-The idea of the Kremlin is to restore the Russian Empire. And it’s not just about Belarus. It is about Ukraine, Moldova or who knows what other countries. We have to understand this because if the Kremlin wins this war – I’m sure it won’t happen, but let’s imagine it does – it won’t stop at Ukraine. There will be others and others and other countries. So we have to stop the threat right now. It is a very important historical moment to maintain peace not only in our region, but throughout the world. Now Lukashenko is convenient for Putin. He just said that he had him tied with a leash, but it’s not a leash, it’s a chain. Putin can shorten that chain, he can loosen that chain… for him it is comfortable and convenient. But we have our own national interest and we are willing to defend our land. Of course we don’t have weapons. We do not want a war on our land, but we are willing to defend it with other means. It can be a media war. It may be a clandestine war. There are many opportunities right now. We cannot predict what will happen, but I see that we Belarusians are ready to continue fighting. We are not ready to give up. We understand that dictators are not endless, and we have to be prepared now for these democratic changes. This is our bet. Many countries went through this and we have many examples. So we are already working on it.