PRAGUE — Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus, says her country’s fate is linked to the outcome of the war that Russia has launched against Ukraine.
“We understand our responsibility in connection with the war in Ukraine,” Tsikhanouskaya told RFE/RL in an interview at its Prague headquarters on May 11.
“We understand that we must fight for Ukraine now to fight for Belarus later,” she said. “We understand that, without a free Ukraine, there cannot be a free Belarus.”
Tsikhanouskaya, 39, was a last-minute presidential candidate, filling in for her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, whose own bid for the presidency was derailed by his arrest and jailing on charges that supporters say were trumped up to keep the popular vlogger off the August 2020 ballot.
Fearing for her safety and that of her family, the former English teacher-turned-politician left Belarus the day after the vote, which resulted in a sixth presidential term for authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and has been leading the Belarusian opposition from exile in Lithuania.
Following massive protests over the vote, which the opposition says was rigged, Lukashenka launched a harsh, and often violent crackdown, jailing tens of thousands of protesters, most of his political opponents, and muzzling independent media.
In reaction 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 his since replied in kind by allowing Moscow to launch attacks on Ukraine and supply forces from Belarusian territory.
Tsikhanouskaya said Belarusian citizens, unlike the country’s leadership, are “doing what they can” to support their neighbor.
“By helping Ukraine, we are also helping ourselves. Because when Ukraine wins, it will mean that the Kremlin is weak and, hence, that Lukashenka is weak. This will open a new window of opportunity for Belarusians, for protests and strikes,” she said.
In response to questions from RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and Current Time, the Russian-language channel led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, over what comes after the fighting ends, Tsikhanouskaya replied that “once Ukraine wins this war, the rest will be up to Belarusians.”
“How can we take best advantage of the moment? How can we weaken [Lukashenka’s] regime? All our work is aimed at, on one hand, weakening the regime and, on the other, empowering the Belarusian people,” she said.
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Tsikhanouskaya said her movement has begun the process of opening a representative office in Kyiv so that it can be in closer contact with Ukrainian officials and the Belarusian diaspora in Ukraine.
Despite the war in Ukraine, the Belarusian opposition has been bolstered by “the 100 percent support of Western democratic countries,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
“They support our movement and our striving to change our country,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “And we have been assured that there will be no negotiations behind the backs of Belarusians. Lukashenka is illegitimate and no one is going to recognize him until our conditions are met — the release of political prisoners and the end to repressions.”
Much of Tsikhanouskaya’s efforts since Russia’s February 24 attack on Ukraine has involved reminding Western countries that the Lukashenka government must not be seen as representative of the Belarusian people.
“When the war started and Belarus became an aggressor in the eyes of other countries, [Western governments] were compelled to act decisively,” she said. “We 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 make is aimed at conveying that Belarusians should not have to pay for Lukashenka’s mistakes.”
“We always say that sanctions against the Belarusian regime must be just as strong as those against Russia, but they should be structured differently,” Tsikhanouskaya explained, saying sanctions against Belarus should target state companies and banks and that small and private businesses should be protected as much as possible.
She also called on Western countries to extend visas to ordinary Belarusians, particularly students, and to find ways to support independent Belarusian media.
“We have also approached tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft to wage a tougher fight against [state] propaganda and to help Belarusian journalists and our people,” she said.
According to the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists, two dozen journalists are currently in custody in Belarus, including Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison in December 2021.
“People turn to heaven and ask: ‘Why must we go through this?'” she said.
“In the case of Belarusians, it is for our silence, for our apolitical stance, for not taking responsibility for our country. We felt content in our small circles of family and friends. And now we are bearing collective responsibility for this.”