Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya holds a photograph of an arrested Belarusian man prior to the screening of the movie "Courage" at the Berlinale film festival on 11 June. Photo by Michael Sohn/Pool / Global Media/Reuters.

An interview with the exiled Belarusian opposition leader about her ambitions, European politicians, and their weak spots. From Respekt.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the main candidate for the opposition in the 2020 presidential election in Belarus. Many in Belarus and abroad find the announced landslide win for longtime ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka to be implausible and believe Tsikhanouskaya won the most votes. She is now living in Lithuania and conducting a campaign for new, free elections and the release of all political prisoners.

Ondrej Kundra and Tomas Brolik:  Several days ago you met with the parents of Roman Protasevich in Warsaw. What did they tell you?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Above all, they are both proud of their son. They are proud he is fighting the Lukashenka regime. However, as parents, they are naturally afraid for him. It’s clear to all of us what kind of situation he’s in right now. His jailers are certain to be humiliating him, morally and physically, to be torturing him. What his parents have to do now, though, is not sink into their grief, but work for their son. They have to give interviews, be heard whenever possible. That’s important on the international scene, and it’s important for the release of Roman himself and the other political prisoners. 

Did his parents ask you for anything specific? Even with the limited opportunities that you have to act from exile?

I fear that for Roman, there is nothing definite that can be done. What we are after is the release of all our political prisoners. After all, it’s not possible for one to be released and the rest left behind. So we are speaking out, we are raising this issue wherever it’s even a little bit possible. That is the only thing we can do, and it is what we are doing. 

Are you in contact with his lawyer? Do you know anything about where he is and what his condition is?

His lawyer has not been allowed to contact him for 10 days. Nothing has changed, his imprisonment is illegal, it’s against the law. I myself have no information because they’re not allowing anybody to visit him. We are in constant touch with his parents and if any new information were to surface, we would know about it.  

When you saw the 90-minute interview on Belarusian state television where Protasevich admitted to have committed sedition against his homeland, where he praised Lukashenka’s policy and called him by his first name, what went through your mind?    

When I heard him say such things, it was difficult for me to imagine what they could have done to him, how they had managed to terrify and torment him so he would do that. The aim of the regime is to divide those fighting against it to the greatest possible extent. They believe somebody will help convict him of treason. 

Does that happen among Belarusians? Has somebody already done that, turned their back on Protasevich?

No. Absolutely not. Everybody knows he is the victim. Nobody believes he was sincere when he said what he said.

Did it remind you of your own experience from last summer, when you appeared to have won won the presidential elections, defeating Lukashenka, and the regime immediately arrested you, and you then left for Lithuania after spending several hours in a building of the secret police? 

The KGB, the secret police, always take aim at our most vulnerable spot. They know our weak spots, they know how to apply pressure, how to force one to do what it is that they need done. Most of the time, that’s how it goes. I thank God that I have never had an experience like the one Roman is having. I have never experienced anything that horrible. I do know their methods, though.

What were your hours with the KGB like? Did they threaten you with death, or with the death of your children or your husband? 

Her children are the weak spot of any woman. They are the most precious thing of all to her. That’s all I will say.

You’ve never described exactly what they said to you or how they pressured you. Do you still not want to discuss that?

No, there’s no need. Whatever I say about that will change nothing. I am not important now. Roman is important, the other political prisoners are important, we must discuss them. 

We aren’t really asking about you specifically. We’re asking so we can better imagine what people in Belarus experience at the hands of the secret police.

They never beat me. Apparently they did hit Roman.

Before Lukashenka sent a military fighter jet to escort the airplane on which Protasevich was flying and forced it to land in Minsk, had it ever occurred to you that taking a flight across Belarusian territory could be risky? That it could even be foolhardy?

No, that was a shock to me too. One week before his arrest, I took that same flight to Greece, where I spoke at an economic forum and met with politicians. It never even occurred to me that if we were to fly over Belarus, the authorities would abduct us. It never occurred to me that it could be possible to fly from one country in the European Union to another only to end up in a Minsk prison halfway through the trip. So, now it’s clear the regime is taking advantage of all opportunities to abduct people, and for that reason we will be taking many more precautions with our travel.

Didn’t it surprise you, after the fact, that they had let your plane fly to its destination?

Originally, we were supposed to fly one day earlier, but I needed to shorten the trip, so we rebooked the plane at the last minute. It may have been that the Belarusian authorities did not then have the exact information about our movements. That might have been the reason why what you’re asking about did not happen.

Isn’t it more likely that at the time they didn’t dare try such a thing with you? After all, you’re quite well known, many politicians around the world are standing up for you, they would have immediately shouted their support for you. Isn’t what happened to Protasevich a certain warning that you could be next?

That could be, but why would they threaten me? What I mean is – what do they imagine I would do? Stop all of this? I will never stop. At this point, we have no way of knowing who the next person will be. There are many activists, journalists, and politicians both in Belarus and in exile who are on the side of the opposition, this could happen to any of them. There is no doubt that we have to be more cautious, not just me, but all of us. We have to know what to do if we believe we are being followed, how to react, whom to call, how to draw attention to an abduction attempt. I think we have to run some kind of program, some kind of training for everybody who might face this. 

That Will Never Happen

Right now you are going around Europe again, just like you did in the autumn, when you met with the German chancellor and the French president. You are meeting with EU politicians again too – how have these meetings changed now that half a year has passed?

We have their absolute solidarity, their full support, that has not changed. However, after this abduction case, we’re hoping the EU reaction will be even braver, more forceful, because the regime no longer poses a danger just to Belarusians, but to EU citizens as well. Most of the people on the airplane carrying Protasevich when it was forced to land were Europeans. Closing the airspace, i.e., keeping EU airplanes from flying across Belarus and banning Belarusian flights into the EU, is one thing – and it is a good thing – but forcing down an airplane is nothing unusual, it’s part of what the regime has long been doing. So, maybe the democratic countries are realizing how dangerous the regime is. They will respond properly.

What did you discuss with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and President Milos Zeman [in Prague last week]? Did you ask them for something specific?

Our tactics are based on three pillars: Isolation of the regime, pressure on the regime, and justice. From the very beginning the Czech Republic has consistently helped a great deal with those first two pillars. This isn’t just about political positions, but also practical assistance, helping people who have been injured, some of them were brought here to your country for medical treatment. You are also helping students who are able to complete their educations in your country after being expelled for political reasons in Belarus. We’ve discussed opening a Belarusian Center in Prague, where Belarusian civil society could have a base.

What about that third subject, justice?

The Czech Republic is interesting for us there too. In the past, your courts have dealt with several cases of universal jurisdiction. I have asked whether it would be possible to investigate this option a little more closely. We might be able to achieve justice for crimes committed in Belarus through your courts, or at least accumulate evidence of those crimes. In Belarus right now we will never achieve justice.

Did local politicians promise you to look into this and that a Belarusian Center will be created?

The center was your president’s proposal. I believe it will.

You are going all over the world, you are asking for harsher sanctions, and sometimes you are succeeding, sometimes not – but sanctions in and of themselves will never overthrow the regime. They do not have that kind of force and there is not much else that can be done. Don’t you sometimes lose hope of defeating the dictatorial regime from here in Europe? 

I’d never say that the regime can’t be changed. It’s not possible to lead a country for long where most of the people want you to resign, where you don’t have the support of civil society. If the sanctions haven’t changed anything yet, then maybe they haven’t been tough enough. It always makes sense to look for new tools that will work.  

A couple of months ago you admitted in an interview that you’ve lost the streets. In Belarus, the demonstrations now are not as big as they were last summer. It’s true, people are no longer gathering in such massive numbers outdoors …

… hang on, I never said we “lost the streets.” That was a misunderstanding, or a mistake in translation. You’re right that the regime has managed to suppress the big demonstrations through force and torture. Nevertheless, people continue to protest in smaller groups. To “lose the streets” would mean that people’s ambitions for change had been lost, and that will never happen. We have just a slightly-open window of opportunity, but the people are taking advantage of every centimeter of that opportunity – they’re organizing, they’re debating, we will be building on all of that in the future. We have an aim in sight and we’re pursuing it. Violence only works to a limited extent, you can’t beat down people’s inner lives. It’s a question of time, and the truth is that the more international pressure and support there will be, then the fewer Belarusian victims there will be.

What exactly is the international pressure and support you speak of? Are there any steps to take that would have an effect on the regime, that would destabilize it? Isn’t that an illusion?

No, no, I don’t believe that’s an illusion. It’s happened before when, under the threat of specific steps by the international community, Lukashenka released political prisoners.

Today’s Lukashenka is more brutal than before, though. What exactly has been happening in Belarus during the last few months? Why are people being isolated, imprisoned, and tortured en masse?  

His aim has always been for people to shut up. That’s why he’s destroyed the media, that’s why he imprisons and silences bloggers and journalists just for discussing us, those who are in exile, for reporting specific, free, independent information. Since last September, through the whole winter, the West never instituted any new sanctions. No conferences, no meetings about Belarus, Belarus was forgotten. That gave Lukashenka self-confidence and a feeling of immunity. That was the result. 

Video messages are your main channel of communication with your fellow citizens. So far in these messages, you’ve offered mainly your bravery and encouragement. Will you be changing your messaging at all? Do you have any ideas about what to add, what to emphasize more now?  

I believe in the nonviolent transfer of power. I don’t want more people to suffer, there has already been enough suffering. In my messages, I say what I feel. I do not want to deprive people of the opportunity to find their own ways to fight – I can’t do that in any event. People are different, they see different solutions. It’s up to each of us. I could be more tactical and think through what I say, but I’m going to keep saying exactly what I’m feeling at the time. 

When do you think you will return to Belarus?

As soon as it is clear that after I cross the border they won’t pack me into a police van and take me to prison.

How Would I Feel in Their Place?

You’re in a political role that you never sought. The presidential candidate of the opposition was your husband, the well-known blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Lukashenka had him arrested ahead of last year’s elections, so you announced your candidacy as an act of resistance. Your husband is still in prison. Can the two of you converse somehow?   

Not in person. We’ve been writing each other letters. I know he’s able to watch television, he has information about what is happening beyond the prison walls. He’s also following my appearances, my trips abroad. In his letters he’s sometimes called on me to be even braver, even stronger. 

You’re living with your children in Vilnius, without your husband. Have you gotten more accustomed to the city?

I am grateful for how Lithuania has received me and my colleagues. Vilnius is the center from which I work and I also spend my free time there. When I arrived there after the elections, I had the kind of usual feeling that anybody in Belarus experiences day in and day out: In any person whom you don’t know, who is a little on the unusual side, you immediately see an agent of the secret service. The longer I live in freedom, though, the better I feel. Although, as I said, after the abduction of Roman Protasevich the security measures around me have been tightened. 

Do you have enough time for your children?

I know we could be going to the playground and playing together but I don’t feel like I have any right to such joys. I am doing my best to spend time with them, but I have to work for the people in Belarus and be with them.

What gives you the strength to carry on? Don’t you sometimes feel  exhausted, resigned to your fate?

Sure, I’m tired. Sometimes it seems I have no energy left. However, in those moments, I always force myself to recall the people sitting in prison. How would I feel in their place? Being somewhere with no room, no light, not much food but a lot of humiliation. What can they do? Nothing. All they can do is place their hopes in the rest of Belarus, her men and women. I’m one of them. Suddenly I’m no longer thinking about myself and my tiredness, because it’s just not possible. Those people have sacrificed their freedom, some have even sacrificed their lives, so that we are able to continue with our struggle. I feel anger toward the regime, and that gives me strength, too.

Ondrej Kundra is deputy editor in chief and Tomas Brolik is an editor with the Czech weekly Respekt, where this interview originally appeared. Republished by permission.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.