“Belarusians can’t rise up—but we are still fighting”

The war in Ukraine has drawn international attention away from repression in Belarus, but opposition leader-in-exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says their struggle for freedom is shared

September 29, 2022
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at the headquarters of the Belarusian opposition in Vilnius, two days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Pavel Krichko
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at the headquarters of the Belarusian opposition in Vilnius, two days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Pavel Krichko

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader-in-exile, has spent the last two years tirelessly making the case for democratic reforms in Belarus. Ever since she ran against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko in the country’s disputed 2020 presidential race, which sparked a series of mass protests against Lukashenko’s regime, Tsikhanouskaya has worked from her new base in Lithuania to raise awareness about what’s happening to her people back home and seek support from allies across Europe and the west.

Since February, however, Tsikhanouskaya has often found herself asked not about Belarus, but another country in which Russian intervention has had devastating consequences: Ukraine, where Russia’s war is now in its seventh month.

The war in Ukraine has made her task as the public face of Belarusian democracy both more urgent and, at the same time, more challenging. As she explains it, it has made painfully clear the importance of combating Russia’s imperialistic ambitions and fighting for democratic ideals and national sovereignty in eastern Europe—but it has also drawn public consciousness away from her country’s plight at a critical moment.

“We are not competing for attention with Ukrainians, because we understand the difference in our situations: the war is there, and of course the attention has to be put on Ukraine,” she says. “But don’t abandon the Belarusian people. The crisis in Belarus—the humanitarian crisis, the political crisis—is still going on, and it’s very important to spread the word about our country.”

In mid-September, I speak with Tsikhanouskaya about the complex nature of those dynamics. It is true that Belarus’s struggle has been somewhat “overshadowed” in recent months, she says, but she sees what’s happening in Ukraine and what’s happening in Belarus as intricately linked.

“The fate of Ukraine and the fate of Belarus are interconnected,” she says. “The Belarusian people are sure that when Ukraine wins, it will be an opportunity for the Belarusian people as well to take one more step toward democratic changes.”

When we speak, the Ukrainian army had just retaken significant territory from Russia in eastern Ukraine. The development, a bright spot after months of fighting, did not go unnoticed by those in Belarus who oppose Lukashenko’s regime: many of them carefully follow updates on the war, and some have even travelled to Ukraine to fight alongside the Ukrainian army.

“People are watching closely what’s going on in Ukraine, and people are happy with the achievements of the Ukrainian army,” she says. “Because we understand that these imperialistic ambitions of Russia are directed not only to Ukraine, but to Belarus as well.”

Since the war began, Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders have worked to strengthen relationships with Ukrainian politicians and diplomats, making it clear that they see their struggles as connected—and to reassure them that the majority of the population of Belarus, unlike Lukashenko, opposes Russia’s war.

“I think, after 200 days of the war, Ukraine managed to understand us better,” she says. Although she has not yet had a chance to meet with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, she says she is confident “that they know about our intention to support them as much as we can in our position”.

Meanwhile, Tsikhanouskaya is in the midst of a busy autumn. The week after we spoke, she travelled to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, meeting one-on-one with a range of world leaders to ask for continued support. This week, she met with MSPs in the Scottish parliament to update them on the situation back in Belarus and spoke at the Labour conference in Liverpool.

Part of her message to international allies—one she delivers in conversations with elected officials and leaders across the west, and has taken with her to New York—is that western leaders should recognise the difference between the Belarusian regime and the Belarusian people.

“Take sanctions, for example: they should be the same strength on Lukashenko’s regime and the Kremlin, but they have to be different on structure” and “understand… that the Belarusian regime and the Belarusian people are two different things.”

Tsikhanouskaya says this difference is so important because, like in Ukraine, many in Belarus have come to consider themselves part of Europe and turned away from Russia. She urges European leaders to consider that, showing her people they are part of Europe: “We have to not isolate the Belarusian people, but to support them—to show that Belarusians are welcomed in the European family, because people in Belarus really feel this European connection,” she says.

While she says she’s been encouraged by the support she and other representatives of the Belarussian opposition have received from the west overall, she emphasises that it’s important for them to understand that just because people are not currently taking to the streets en masse to protest, doesn’t mean the situation has improved or that Belarusians have stopped fighting for change. More than a thousand political prisoners are still behind bars, including her husband, the activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

“Because of repressions in our country, people can’t rise up vocally… but it’s very important for our international allies to understand that everything is going on, people are not giving up,” she says. “We are using every possible opportunity to show in Belarus and abroad that we are fighting.”

But keeping up the attention on Belarus, a challenge for any ongoing democratic movement, requires more than just political activism: away from the political spotlight, she says cultural and social efforts play a significant role in continuing to get the word out. Efforts to explore the struggle in Belarus through other means, including a play about the 2020 election and protests that premiered this week in Scotland and will tour the UK, are a way to introduce her country’s situation to people who otherwise might not be exposed to it.

“Cultural events can attract many more ordinary people than politicians,” she says. Of the play in Scotland, called “The People Woke Up,” she adds: “Maybe some people who see this play, for the first time in their life, will wonder where Belarus is, what is the country about, what is going on there. So we really can’t underestimate such events.”

Among politicians and everyday citizens alike, Tsikhanouskaya implores those watching things unfold from the west to recognise the inherent privilege of growing up in democratic societies where freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are the norm, not something people have to fight for. Although Belarus’s struggle may seem far away for those in other countries across Europe, she urges people to do what they can to raise awareness, however big or small.

“We are fighting for the same values you have by birth,” she says. “If you can do something small for such countries as ours… do it, because it’s your small input into the future of the whole country, of the whole Belarus. Every small step is important.”