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At the toughest moment in the history of relations between Ukraine and Belarus, the Kyiv Independent sat down to speak with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarus opposition in exile.
Back in 2020, Tsikhanouskaya contested Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in the presidential election. There is evidence that the election was rigged on a massive scale.
Lukashenko pronounced himself the winner, and violently oppressed the mass protests that followed.
Tsikhanouskaya had to flee Belarus and has been living in Lithuania ever since, still representing the opposition to the Lukashenko regime.
The Kyiv Independent: How has your life and work as a leader of the Belarus opposition changed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: On Feb. 24 we entered a new reality. Before, we were fighting only against dictatorship, for free and fair elections in our country, for the release of political prisoners, and now we have to fight for the very existence of our country.
Putin doesn’t recognize Belarus and Ukraine as independent countries. He sees our countries as vassals, his own sphere of influence, and he will never let our people choose their future by themselves.
Therefore we, Belarusian (opposition), have broadened our activities. On one hand, we help Ukraine to win, on the other hand we strengthen the resistance movement within our country.
There will be a moment when Putin and Lukashenko get weaker, and it will be the chance for Belarusians to get our country back.
I see my personal role as being the voice of Belarusians, those in the country and those in exile. I have to make sure that the situation in Belarus is not overlooked.
Of course, Ukraine must be in focus at this moment, but I try to show that Belarusians also fight and that we don’t give up.
On the very first days of the war, Belarusians were criticized for not protesting and we started to explain that we protest against the war, but in a different way. Rallies are not possible now because the price is too high, but Belarusians fight underground.
The Kyiv Independent: Even in Ukraine, anti-war protests in Belarus weren’t widely reported, and the general opinion is that Belarusians aren’t resisting Putin using their country to attack Ukraine. Why do you think that is?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Maybe people didn’t understand what has been going on in our country for the last year and a half. You can’t blame people who live in a gulag for living in a gulag.
The first rally after the war started was on Sunday (Feb. 27). There were about 100,000 people on the streets. It was a huge surprise for us as well, because with new detentions every day, and living under huge repressions — we couldn’t expect that Belarusians would go out.
People knew they would be detained after the anti-war rally but they took this responsibility because we need to show Ukrainians: Look, we are not on the side of the regime, we are with you.
They did it knowing that there will be consequences.
You know that people who go to rallies in our country are brutally beaten in jails, they are humiliated physically and morally. After interrogations, a lot of people go straight to hospitals. But people knew that we had to show Ukrainians our position.
After these numerous rallies happened, Belarusians changed their methods to support Ukrainians.
As you know, our Belarusian activists disrupt the railway system so that Russian military equipment doesn’t get into Ukraine.
Our activists are constantly taking pictures of military equipment, tanks, and sending them straight to the Ukrainian army. And it is extremely dangerous to do this in Belarus.
I just want to explain why we are not protesting. This is our way to help.
The Kyiv Independent: We have been watching Belarus closely, anticipating that it could join Russia’s war and send its troops into Ukraine. Why do you think it hasn’t happened yet?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: We hope that it won’t happen. There is an opposition to war among the military, among our army. We’ve heard that the Belarus army resisted entering Ukraine despite pressure and threats. It was supposed to join Russian troops (early in the war) but something went wrong.
Since the very start of the war we have been working with officers, with mothers of soldiers, explaining why Belarus shouldn’t get involved in this fight.
Our people, even our soldiers, don’t have the intention to fight against our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. We have always had a wonderful relationship. And they don’t understand why they have to go and kill or be killed because of the ambitions of two people, Lukashenko and Putin.
It’s not a merit of Lukashenko that our army is not fighting in Ukraine. It’s the merit of Belarusian soldiers, of Belarusian civil society that started to work with our army since the very beginning of the war.
I really can’t imagine our people, Belarusians, fighting against the brotherly nation.
But in case our soldiers will be forced to cross the border, we explain to them how to surrender to the Ukrainian military, that they don’t have to be enemies to Ukrainians, they don’t have to share responsibility with Lukashenko for this criminal order.
But again – I hope it will not happen.
The Kyiv Independent: If Belarus troops cross the border and the country officially joins the war, what will it mean for the future of Belarus?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Our country is already considered a co-aggressor in this war. But if it happens, Belarus will be isolated from the rest of Europe.
Of course we will continue to explain that Belarusians are not the same as the Belarusian regime, but it will be much more difficult for us to prove this.
The attitude towards Belarusians has already changed since the war started. It took a lot of time for us to explain to ordinary Ukrainians, Polish, Lithuanians that Belarusians don’t want this war, please don’t put Russians and Belarusians on the same level.
But our country will be isolated for sure (if troops cross the border).
But even now we demand that all the sanctions that are being imposed on Russia should be duplicated on the Belarusian regime. Because the Belarusian regime shouldn’t avoid responsibility for these atrocities, for this invasion, for being the collaborant.
I think that the Iron Curtain is now being put on Russia, and we want our country to be on the other side of the curtain, together with Ukraine and all normal countries.
The Kyiv Independent: Experts say that Belarusian army wouldn’t be a big enough factor to change the tides in the war. It seems like Putin wants Lukashenko to enter the war to make sure Belarus remains in his zone of influence with no chance of going west. Is that the way you see it?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Putin needs Lukashenko because he needs an accomplice in this war. It may be convenient for him to keep Lukashenko in power because he’s like a puppet in his hands.
I think that the toughest sanctions for Russia will be free and democratic Belarus. And that’s why we demand from the Kremlin, ask our democratic partners to demand the withdrawal of the Russian military from our territory. We understand that with these (Russian) troops on the territory of Belarus it will be much more difficult for us to fight against the regime.
Of course we understand that when Ukraine wins, there will be a window of opportunity for us to get rid of Lukashenko’s regime and build a wonderful and democratic country which will be a good neighbor for Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and to be in the European family.
The Kyiv Independent: You used to say in interviews that you don’t consider yourself the elected president of Belarus. You said you know that the election was rigged but you can’t know for sure who won. Now you say you won the election. What does this change mean?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: I never said that we don’t know who won the elections. We have proof, we have alternative count, where it was evident that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya won the election in 2020.
So I always said that people voted for me but I can’t call myself president because we don’t have the real counting, the paper counting.
But it doesn’t matter who calls herself or himself president. What is important is who people think the leader is.
Lukashenko calls himself president. He did this so-called inauguration. He pretends to rule the country. But people denied him being the leader. They hate him. Even for one day, after 2020, he can’t feel that he’s the real president of the country and has the support of the Belarusian people.
The Kyiv Independent: Since 2020, you’ve taken so many meetings with world leaders, but not with President Volodymyr Zelensky. Why hasn’t he met with you?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: I have spoken with Zelensky, we’ve met only once briefly at an event in Vilnius, however my team is in touch with his team on a daily basis.
I understand that they don’t want any public engagement with Belarus democratic forces because it can provoke an escalation from Lukashenko and Moscow. I could understand it well and we don’t want to do any harm.
When Zelensky will be ready to meet, I would love to meet him, at least to express solidarity and support.
The Kyiv Independent: There is a Belarusian battalion of Kastus Kalinowski fighting as part of Ukraine’s armed forces. Are you in touch with them? They have taken an oath to Belarus. Does that mean that they proclaim themselves the real army of Belarus?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Hundreds of Belarusians are enlisted in the Ukrainian army and are fighting in various groups and battalions.
In Kyiv, Odesa, Lviv, Lutsk. At the moment there are two military formations, Kalinowski Battalion and the group Peryamoga. They are part of the Ukrainian armed forces.
Most fighters in the battalion don’t have military experience. They are activists, students, artists. But they love Belarus and Ukraine, they would sacrifice everything to defend our nations.
They are our pride and in the future these people will become officers of the new Belarusian army.
Their task now is to defend Ukraine because they definitely understand that if Ukraine wins this war, there will be a chance for Belarusians to get rid of dictatorship. Maybe (the battalion) will be the future core of our army.
The Kyiv Independent: You call yourself the national leader of Belarus. You haven’t lived there in 1.5 years and your life now is very different from the life of the people of Belarus. How do you not lose touch with them? How can you be sure you can still represent them?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: I’m communicating with different groups of Belarusians every day – with doctors, teachers, activists, businessmen, on a daily basis. I feel them.
We are communicating not to lose each other's mood – it’s important for me to see how they are living, what they are thinking about, and what their intentions are.
I don’t think that I lost connection with Belarusians.
For a year and a half we are keeping this unity of views, we are keeping this understanding of what we want to change in our country and yes I’m representing Belarusians on the international arena, but I’m still one of millions of Belarusians that want new elections, that want changes in our country, that are against the war with Ukraine.
I’m just reiterating what people tell me.
The Kyiv Independent: A question from one of the patrons of the Kyiv Independent: “Now that you see what is happening in Ukraine and Belarus, do you still think that taking a nonviolent approach to protests in Belarus in 2020 was the right way to go?”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: This is the question I’m always asked. And I’m asking myself this question. But I remember 2020. Belarusian people have never had experience in violence. They didn’t want to be on the same level with the regime, to violate other people.
And actually, we didn’t have any tools.
It’s easy to say, and there were some groups of people who said, “Look, we have to avoid peaceful demonstrations, we have to be more brutal” — ok, but with what? Do you have weapons? No. Do you have any instruments or tools? No. Going against armed OMON people with empty hands? I don’t understand this.
It was our strategy at that moment. It can’t be changed, it’s in the past already. Maybe if there was another person instead of me at that moment it would be different. But I felt Belarusian moods. They didn’t want violence from our side.
The Kyiv Independent: What is giving you hope for the future of Belarus?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: In these 1.5 years I’ve been finding hope in every Belarusian. I saw that people are not giving up despite the repressions, despite the fear that they can be detained at any moment. They moved small steps but these were steps forward.
When the world and Belarusians saw the bravery and courage of Ukrainian people it gave us a second wave of inspiration. We saw how important it is to defend your country.
You defend it differently, you fight a real war against the Russian regime. We are fighting with our tools, with what we can do at this moment.
Every day I see millions of people who are fighting for their future. It inspires me a lot, it gives me hope that we will win. Ukrainians will win, and Belarusians will win.