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UkraineAlert July 21, 2021

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Belarus’ future and her place in it

By Doug Klain

“I don’t ask [the United States] to back me, I ask [it] to back democratic values,” said Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus, during her first working visit to Washington, DC, to meet with high-level US government officials.

“This is understandable for America. We are sharing common values like rule of law, human rights, democracy. The fight now is in Belarus locally, but it’s the problem of the whole world,” she continued.

Tsikhanouskaya sat down in-person for an Atlantic Council Front Page event hosted by the Council’s Eurasia Center, where she was interviewed by PBS NewsHour Chief Correspondent Amna Nawaz and was joined by US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher and Eurasia Center Deputy Director Melinda Haring. The event came a day after Tsikhanouskaya’s meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other State Department officials, and hours before her meetings with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and members of Congress.

Asked by Nawaz what she wants from the Biden administration, Tsikhanouskaya replied “Maximum pressure, and maximum support to civil society in Belarus,” especially to those Belarusians still working to document human rights abuses and crimes committed by Belarusian authorities.

“Send a clear message that the independence for Belarus is the highest value and that Belarus is not [up for deals]. Nobody can sign any deals with Lukashenka at the moment because he is illegitimate.”

watch the event

Tsikhanouskaya rose to prominence challenging Belarus’s longtime dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka during the lead up to the country’s 2020 presidential election. When her husband, political vlogger Siarhiy Tsikhanouski, was jailed by the government for trying to challenge Lukashenka for the presidency, Tsikhanouskaya—an English teacher without political experience—stepped up and ran in her husband’s place.

Lukashenka stole the election and forced Tsikhanouskaya to flee the country when she likely won. Belarusians took to the streets en masse in protests that ground the country to a halt for months and faced violent beatings and detentions from police, torture and assault in prisons, and one of the harshest authoritarian crackdowns seen in years.

Today, Tsikhanouskaya runs the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power working to rally the international community to support the Belarusian people and hold Lukashenka accountable.

“Our goal is holding new free and fair elections in Belarus, and observation of [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] or different organizations to retain people’s right to vote,” said Tsikhanouskaya.

But as the face of the movement for democracy in Belarus and the biggest voice against Lukashenka, would Tsikhanouskaya run again for the presidency herself?

“I’m not going to participate in new elections,” she told Nawaz. “I have a mandate only to…bring our country to new elections. But I never wanted to be in power.”

Since fleeing Belarus and finding refuge in Lithuania, Tsikhanouskaya has managed a balancing act of using her newfound prominence to elevate the issues facing Belarusians—especially the more than 550 political prisoners still locked up, including her husband—while maintaining that success will mean her stepping away from the leadership role she now occupies.

One of the biggest concerns Tsikhanouskaya is facing is the ability for the democratic movement to sustain itself. While Belarusians took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands last year, the combination of massive state violence and a brutally cold winter have limited wide-scale protests.

“Is the enthusiasm gone? Has Lukashenka won?” asked Nawaz.

“Of course people went to fight on an underground level… People are continuing to fight, even though we can’t go out so massively,” said Tsikhanouskaya. “This is bravery. When you are under attack, under oppression, but you are continuing to fight. People understand that they can be detained at any moment, you can be kidnapped on the street just because of the color of your socks or because you participated in peaceful demonstrations [last year], but you are going out and doing something.”

“That’s why in my meetings, I urge countries, ‘Don’t lead a picture-based policy, lead a values-based policy.’ Don’t think that if you don’t see those huge demonstrations, people lost intention for changes. Of course not.”

Another key issue is what a future Belarusian state will look like on the world stage. To stay in power, Lukashenka has relied heavily on support from Russian President Vladimir Putin as Western leaders have rebuked him. What does Moscow want in Belarus, and how critical is Putin’s support for Lukashenka’s government?

“Putin supported Lukashenka after fraudulent elections because the Kremlin also did not expect such an uprising of the Belarusian people,” said Tsikhanouskaya. “It’s really a pity, because we have a wonderful relationship with the Russian people. Lukashenka is not the whole of Belarus, he’s only one person.”

“I have a question,” said Tsikhanouskaya. “Why are we talking about Russia in this case? This is not a fight between West and East, our fight is between the past and the future. This is a fight inside our country for bringing people their right to choose whoever they want.”

“Our country is in crisis, and if Russia wants to play a constructive role, just don’t interfere in the policy of our country.”

When the conversation concluded, Tsikhanouskaya left for the White House to meet with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and then on to Capitol Hill where she met with the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and other members of Congress, and later with USAID Administrator Samantha Power.

While her appearance at the Atlantic Council occurred on day three of her trip, Tsikhanouskaya also plans to travel to New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles for further meetings.

Doug Klain is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Find him on Twitter @DougKlain.