BERLIN – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign promise for the 2020 presidential election in Belarus was simple. She will win, hold fair elections, and step down. Belarus will become a European country, like any other, free from the disorderly despotism that characterized the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994.
“I want to live in a normal country where the rule of law reigns,” Tihanovskaya told me recently from her team’s headquarters in Vilnius, Lithuania, where she lives in exile.
But it didn’t have to be. Official results showed that Lukashenka returned with 80% of the vote; they always do that. Tikhanovskaya, considered by many to be the legitimate winner, was forced to leave the country. Massive protests against vote rigging were suppressed with unprecedented brutality in the post-Soviet era.
Over the 16 months that have passed since the elections, the danger that Lukashenka poses not only for Belarusians, but for the whole world, has become even more obvious. In May, his government hijacked a civilian airliner flying over Belarusian airspace to arrest a dissident blogger and his girlfriend…
Then, in its most blatant escalation to date, the regime orchestrated a migration crisis at the doorstep of the EU, facilitating the entry of thousands of people from the Middle East into Belarus and directing them westward in an attempt to destabilize the bloc. The crisis culminated in early November, when thousands of people were transported to the border. They were denied entry to Poland, they were stuck for several days between Polish and Belarusian border guards, setting up camp outside in sub-zero temperatures. In total, more than ten migrants are known to have died in the swamps and forests of the border zone.
“I feel sorry for these people … They are hostages of the regime, which uses them as cannon fodder,” Tikhanovskaya told me. “This crisis is organized [Belarusian] state. It was artificially created to put pressure on the European Union, Poland and Lithuania. “
But Tikhanovskaya, 39, who calls herself “the leader of democratic Belarus,” insists the border problem should not distract from the political crisis that has lasted since Lukashenka refused to miss the 2020 elections.
Both problems are inherently caused by the Lukashenka regime, which does not hesitate to choose how to suppress dissent at home and undermine its enemies abroad. “Only with the dismantling of the regime can the situation improve. If only the migration crisis is resolved, the regime will invent something else, ”Tikhanovskaya said, sitting in front of the white-red-white flag preferred by the Belarusian opposition.
Moreover, Tikhanovskaya is worried that the border crisis has distracted attention from the regime’s ever-increasing despotism at home. In the year since the elections, the regime has dealt with the last remnants of independent media and civil society in Belarus. Dozens of journalists and opposition activists were forced to leave the country. The few who refused to leave, such as the politician Maria Kolesnikova, an ally of Tikhanovskaya, languish in the colonies.
“When we see these poor migrants at the border, we forget that there are thousands of people in Belarusian prisons, who are also subjected to physical and mental humiliation. But there are no photos of them. ” Tikhanovskaya speaks fluent English, partially learned it in County Tipperary, where she spent several summer months as part of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster relief program.
If the last year changed Belarus, the opposition also changed. Tikhanovskaya’s election campaign focused only on internal discontent. She stayed away from geopolitics, denying that the opposition was seeking to move Belarus out of Russia’s orbit – in part because Russian-speaking Belarusians remain deeply close to their “big brother,” but also to reassure the Kremlin that her move will not lead to Russia. … the closest international ally turned to the West.
A year later, Tikhanovskaya’s tone was noticeably hardened. Despite her attempts to negotiate with Moscow, the Kremlin has backed Lukashenko through repeated atrocities that culminated in a man-made migration crisis.
“Belarusians are very respectful of the Russian people. We do not want to destroy our relationship with Russia, ”Tikhanovskaya says carefully. But Russia’s support for Lukashenka has alienated her movement. “Since the Kremlin supported the regime after these rigged elections – supported the violence and torture of Belarusians – of course, the attitude towards the Kremlin has changed a lot.”
The day after our speech, Putin is calling for “dialogue” between Lukashenko and the opposition – perhaps a signal that the Kremlin may be growing tired of its volatile ally, on whom it spends billions annually in subsidies. Indeed, for Tikhanovskaya, Moscow’s support for Lukashenko is not only morally unjustified, but also seriously damages Russia’s interests. “Lukashenko is costing Russia dearly, both economically and politically.”
According to Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenka’s regime survives only through terror and intimidation. “Even the ministers are unhappy with the situation in Belarus, but everyone is scared. Most of them want change, but they are also hostages of the regime. “
While Tikhanovskaya is seen as Lukashenko’s main opponent, there are some indications that she has only limited popularity. According to the leak survey According to the Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, a sociological agency linked to the Kremlin, 46 percent of Belarusians view her favorably. She polls better than 30 percent of Lukashenka, although not as well as Kolesnikova and other imprisoned opposition politician Viktor Babariko. However, there is no doubt that she won the vote last year.
According to her, the past year in exile has been personally difficult. She has not seen her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a blogger hosting an anti-Lukashenka YouTube channel, since she left Belarus. He was jailed in May 2020, a few days after announcing that he plans to run in the upcoming elections. Tikhanovskaya ran into his place. “The fact that I cannot communicate with my husband, that my two children have not seen dad for over a year: of course, it hurts.”
However, she feels that she has no choice. “I, like many others, bear responsibility for those who sacrificed their personal freedom for the future freedom of Belarus,” she insists.
Does she believe that she can return to Belarus? “I know I will. Sooner or later I will go home. I will reunite with my husband, and together we will build a new Belarus ”.