Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is ratcheting up international pressure on the authoritarian country fellow’s, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. The Baltic Times Magazine approached in August Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with straight-forward questions and was granted as many forthright and candid answers.
After one year since the contested presidential election in Belarus, how can you now describe the current political and socio-economic situation in Belarus?
Belarus is going through a serious crisis. This is a political crisis, but it is developing into an economic and humanitarian crisis, too.
Economic: because there is lawlessness in the country, and development of the economy in such conditions is impossible – no responsible investor will invest in such a country.
Humanitarian: because there is lawlessness in the country, and the state does not ensure the safety of its citizens. Law enforcement agencies are fighting not with criminals, but with the people. The most active and able-bodied citizens leave the country.
There is one reason for the crisis in which Belarus finds itself: Alexander Lukashenko, who lost the elections on August 9 2020 and who refuses to leave his post.
He continues to cling to power by force, intimidating people, beating and torturing them, trying to harness and destroy the media and civil society organizations.
The crisis can be resolved only by removing its cause – that is, removing the loser from power and by holding a new, free and fair election.
Before that, it would be reasonable to hold negotiations on how to conduct the elections, which would make it possible to avoid confrontation in society and the resulting violence.
Such negotiations are what the Belarusian people demand. It is also what the participants of peaceful protest rallies call for. What is happening now does not suit anyone.
Sadly, my fellow Belarusians live in a country now, where there is no certainty that loved ones who leave the house in the morning, will return home in the evening.
Why didn’t the massive street protests that all the world was watching in awe last autumn lead to an ouster of Alexander Lukashenko?
Because in over 27 years in power he (Lukashenko) has destroyed everything and everyone that could threaten his power. He wiped out any possibility of a political alternative. There is not a single opposition faction in the Belarusian parliament, there are no free elections.
Instead of free elections, an election performance is staged, where people controlled by the regime become members of the election commissions and act presumably as election watchdogs and rig the election results completely.
The last relatively fair elections were held in Belarus in 1995.
On top of that, to answer your question, the main criterion for recruiting civil servants is loyalty to the regime, not the capability to spearhead initiatives and professionalism. As a result, the vertical-pyramid-power-based authority was formed, obeying the man at the very top (Lukashenko) and he is the one who gives all the orders, even those that are criminal and even seemingly insane.
So over the 27 years of his rule, we had no parliament, no local authorities, no local self-government, and no strong political parties.
We do not even have oligarchs whose own interests could be slightly different from those of Lukashenko.
Namely because of that, the first attempt to return to our people the right to vote and elect officials they wanted in power themselves, failed, but a huge step in this direction was made.
If you were to say honestly, what would you do differently now than a year ago?
You know, all the main things that I did then, I would do now again.
Probably, I would be more careful now not to fall into the trap of the Belarusian Central Election Commission ... Although it is not known, in fact, at what moment, how and where else I could have been captured. In a country with such an obsequious, pandering electoral watchdog, I think it would have been just a matter of time.
The situation we have in Belarus did not just come out of the blue. It has ripened to become what it is. We have embarked on the path to freedom and want to build a new Belarus. I’d certainly do things all over again if the clock could be switched back.
Pointing out the 2014 Ukraine events, some analysts say that Minsk protests were too peaceful and lacked a clear political strategy and true revolutionaries? Do you agree?
I think that every country has its own political experience. There were indeed various protests in Ukraine (before the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 –TBT), including peaceful ones.
As I mentioned, in Belarus, there was no real politics for more than 20 years, so many of us started, in terms of political experience, almost from scratch.
Yes, our revolution is fundamentally peaceful, but because of this it does not cease to be a revolution. And it lasts in time. This is a process that is currently ongoing.
Some of your fellow oppositionists, like Pavel Latushko, set up their own political parties following the 2020 Belarus election. Some political analysts point out that they bring more competition and rivalry to the democratic Belarusian opposition and wedges a splinter in its unity. Do you agree? Do you coordinate your actions with Pavel Latushko?
I would not like to judge whether this is correct or not. In any case, the party system will need to be developed. How timely this is, our people, the Belarusians, will tell and show – will they join these parties en masse or not. It is the people’s will that matters the most.
Speaking of Pavel Latushko, we coordinate our actions to a very large extent – on all the most important issues and we discuss and develop a single plan of action.
Why haven’t you set up your own political party so far? Are you intending to do that any time soon?
At the moment, we have a common goal and a common national movement. Together we are fighting for the return of law to Belarus in order to free people from prisons and end the violence. We are fighting to get rid of this cannibalistic regime. And I don't see any sense in creating a separate party of my own yet. This does not mean that I will not do so sometime later. If it makes sense, why not?
Do you know approximate figures of how many democratic-minded Belarusians were detained and put in jail since the 2020 election?
About 40 thousand have gone through detentions, beatings, torture, fines, and arrests.
More than 3 thousand people are behind bars now, and they are not there for a day, but for very long periods – years and years.
But I am sure they will not be in prison for 7, 12 or 14 years, as our victory will come earlier. But as every single day, every single hour in captivity poses a threat to their lives and inflicts damage to their health, we are fighting for them every day!
To tell the truth, that makes my whole team work even harder. We understand that, being in forced exile, but free, we must make every effort to free them as quickly as possible.
Lukashenko is certainly now much stronger than he was a year ago right after the election. Where do you see his biggest vulnerabilities now?
I don't see his strength at all. He is an old sick person to whom loss of power means death, so he is forced to pull the deadly trigger, which is seemingly becoming a burden for him.
Needless to say, he has done so many horrible things to his own people that he will never – no matter how long he clings on power – leave office with dignity. And now, we see that, every day, he is getting cornered, so his future is becoming darker and sadder.
His biggest vulnerability stems from having nothing behind his soul, but sheer fear. He is himself afraid of everyone: people, his own environment, which only thinks about when to betray him.
All he can do and all he does is use fear against the people. Beatings and torture, all kinds of violence is the only resource in his hands.
He has nothing attractive – at all. He has nothing to offer the Belarusian people. He has no vision of the country's development, no colleagues, nor any friends. There are only subordinates, whom he keeps in his tightly clenched fist with fear and blackmails.
He has already driven the country into a terrible crisis and brought it to the brink of disaster. But he continues to try to make people love him by using special police batons. This is impossible. It doesn't work that way.
Do you believe the adopting a new Belarusian Constitution can energise and bring Belarusians back to the streets? Is that what you’re expecting?
I fully admit it. I don’t know, and no one knows now what exactly will be the trigger when the energy of the people bursts out in the situation. But this will happen – a little earlier or a little later. No doubt about it.
How are operations of the democratic Belarusian forces limited due to their forceful exile, i.e operating from abroad?
Well, if we could act from our own country, at least on the same level as now (we do that) from abroad, it would mean that Belarus would now be a democratic country, more or less.
Now, just being outside the country allows us to be safe and work: to establish contacts on international levels, organize assistance to the victims of the regime terror and create programs for reform and reconstruction of the country after the fall of the regime.
Indeed, being outside of Belarus in forceful exile, I cannot personally lead everyone to the barricades, but I have not done this before either.
Our protest involves thousands of leaders who create many links in the growing chain of resistance, multiple Telegram channels through which information and coordination of protests and initiatives is being disseminated.
And this constitutes our strength. No matter how many leaders end up behind bars, the protest continues to flare and will go on, just because there are many leaders. In fact, everyone, in a way, becomes a leader. And such protests cannot be wiped out.
The EU has imposed far-reaching sanctions on the Lukashenko regime. Are they enough? What other sanction and what other forms of pressure do you believe would help get rid of the regime?
If it were up to me, I’d introduce even tougher and more decisive sanctions against the so-called "wallets" of the dictator and his entourage. I would also identify and freeze their accounts and assets, and close all the loopholes so that sanctions cannot be circumvented, stop the flow of any resources to the regime, warn those who are trying to help the regime bypass the sanctions that, in this case, they will be imposed on their aides, build up and build up pressure at all points, and wear out the regime and win.
Can you please speak of Belarusians who, like you, fled to Lithuania, Vilnius? Do you keep in touch with them? Perhaps they can be the core of your political party?
My friends and supporters are not only in Lithuania, there are many of them in other countries. In fact, everywhere. There are many of them in Belarus. Unfortunately, there are many of them behind bars. Most of all I think specifically about those who did not leave, who have put their life in danger – every day, every hour, every minute.
My team and I try to keep in touch with everyone here. We are all united in a big strong team for one goal: to hold fair elections in Belarus in order to determine for ourselves how our country will develop further.
They just do their job, whatever they can, so that in 10 years from now, they will tell their children and grandchildren that what we are going through now has been an amazing historical time in the formation of Belarusian democracy. They will be able to say proudly: „I was there with my people, and I fought together with everyone!“
What is your plan of action for the rest of the year?
The energy of resistance and internal tensions in the country are growing. The illegitimate actions of the regime aimed at attempting to destroy the budding civil society and put everything and everyone under control are the driving force.
When and where that will erupt, throwing away the regime and setting Belarusians free is impossible to day, but it will happen.
As we speak at the end of July, Belarus’ “Rabochy Rukh”, a national movement of Belarusian workers, is preparing a strike under the “Peramoga” (Victory) plan.
The plan to be executed at “X” hour (when the opposition forces will strike a deciding blow to the Lukashenko regime – TBT) will also involve professionals of ByPol, which unites now former syloviki who left the special militia forces and sided with pro-democracy fellow Belarusians.
The plan allows everyone to get engaged to be part of the “X” hour. Our so-called cyber partisans are working hard in various directions.
Belarus made its choice a year ago, on August 9, and we will certainly achieve victory.
How often do you get to see your husband and your children now?
My husband is still in prison. I have not seen him since May 29 of last year. All contacts I have with him are only through a lawyer, who visits him once or twice a week. My children are here with me in Lithuania. I see them every day.
I try to spend as much time as possible with them, read them a book at night. My daughter often cries: “Where is my dad? Why can't he come?” She is only 5. My son already understands a lot, he is 11.
Do you still keep calling yourself humbly “a symbol” of Belarusian opposition? Perhaps you’ve grown into a larger political figure than just a “symbol” by now?
You know, it's not for me to say this. In general, it does not matter at all what they call me, as the main thing is that we all do our job together every day...
I want everyone to understand that all those high receptions and the words of admiration I am receiving are not addressed to me, but to all the Belarusian people, who said one year ago clearly:
“That's enough! We demand respect for our rights!“, and to those hundreds and thousands of fearless peaceful protestors who went out to protest against the army of the well-armed special militia force, hired for money to guard the dictator.
Among them there were ordinary women like myself, students, doctors, IT specialists, and pensioners and all other kinds of people.
The entire nation has come out protesting injustice and violence – for their own dignity, for the future of their own children. And this desire has not gone anywhere. It is in everyone’s heart. It cannot be stopped. Another future cannot be prevented.