BERLIN – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign promise for the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections was simple. She would win, organise fair elections, and resign. Belarus would become a European country like any other, free of the erratic despotism that has characterised the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the country since 1994.
“I want to live in a normal country where the rule of law prevails,” Tikhanovskaya told me from her team’s headquarters in Vilnius, Lithuania, where she lives in exile.
But it wasn’t to be. The official results showed Lukashenko returned with around 80 per cent of the vote. Tikhanovskaya, who ran as an independent candidate, received just 9.9 per cent in the official results. She was widely viewed as the legitimate winner of the election but was forced into exile immediately after. Mass protests were crushed with a severity not seen in post-Soviet Belarus.
In the 15 months since the election, the danger Lukashenko poses not just to Belarusians but to Europe and the world has been brought into sharp focus. In May, his government used the pretence of a bomb threat to hijack a Ryanair flight flying over Belarusian airspace in order to arrest a dissident blogger and his girlfriend. Both remain in detention.
More recently, in its most brazen escalation to date, the regime orchestrated a migrant crisis on the EU’s borders. It facilitated the entry into Belarus of thousands of people from the Middle East, making it easier for them to obtain visas. Once they arrived in Minsk, they were escorted to the border with Poland and Lithuania by police, in an attempt to destabilise the West. Thousands were stuck for days between Polish and Belarusian armed guards, unable to enter the EU or to return to Minsk. They were camping, as I reported from Poland at the time, in sub-zero temperatures. At least ten migrants have died in the swamps and forests of the border zone.
“I feel sorry for these people… They are hostages of the regime, which uses them as cannon fodder,” Tikhanovskaya said when we spoke via video call. “This crisis is orchestrated by the [Belarusian] state. It was artificially created to put pressure on the European Union, Poland and Lithuania.”
Tikhanovskaya, 39, styles herself as the “leader of democratic Belarus” and insists the situation at the border should not distract from the country’s slow-burning political crisis. She says the regime has no scruples in the methods it chooses to repress dissent at home and undermine its enemies abroad. “Only with the dismantling of the regime can the situation improve. If only the migration crisis is solved, the regime will invent something else,” she said, seated in front of the white-red-white flag favoured by the opposition.
Tikhanovskaya worries that the recent border crisis has drawn focus away from the Lukashenko regime’s escalating despotism at home. Following the stolen election, the regime has cracked down on the last vestiges of independent media and civil society in Belarus. Scores of journalists and opposition activists have been forced into exile. The brave few who refused to leave, such as the politician Maria Kolesnikova, a Tikhanovskaya ally, languish in prison colonies. “When we see these poor migrants at the border, we forget there are thousands of people in Belarusian jails who are also humiliated physically and morally. But there are no photos of them.”
Tikhanovskaya’s English is fluent, learned in part in County Tipperary, Ireland, where she spent several summers as a child as part of a programme for people from areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Her hometown of Mikashevichi was close to the border with Ukraine and the fallout zone.
If the past year changed Belarus, it also changed the opposition. In her 2020 campaign, Tikhanovskaya was careful to focus only on domestic grievances. She avoided geopolitics, denying that the opposition sought to move Belarus out of Russia’s orbit – in part because Russophone Belarusians retain a deep affinity with the “big brother”, but also to reassure the Kremlin that her movement would not turn Russia’s closest international ally to the West.
Now Tikhanovskaya’s tone has hardened. Despite her overtures to Moscow, the Kremlin has stood behind Lukashenko through repeated outrages.
“Belarusians are very respectful towards the Russian people. We don’t want to destroy our relationship with Russia,” said Tikhanovskaya. But Russia has alienated her movement by backing Lukashenko. “Because the Kremlin supported the regime following these fraudulent elections – supported violence and the torture of Belarusians – of course attitudes towards the Kremlin have changed a lot.”
On 18 November, the day after we spoke, Putin called for “dialogue” between Lukashenko and the opposition – a signal, perhaps, that the Kremlin may be tiring of its erratic ally, on whom it spends billions each year in subsidies. For Tikhanovskaya, Moscow’s backing of Lukashenko is not just morally indefensible but actively harmful to Russian interests. “Lukashenko is so costly – economically and politically – to Russia,” she said. Lukashenko’s regime, she added, survives only by terror and intimidation. “Even ministers are not happy with the situation in Belarus, but everyone is scared. Most of them want changes, but they are also hostages of the regime.”
Although Tikhanovskaya is viewed as Lukashenko’s primary opponent, there are some indications that she enjoys only limited popularity. According to a leaked poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, a Kremlin-linked pollster, 46 per cent of Belarusians have a positive opinion of her. She polls better than Lukashenko’s 30 per cent, though not as well as Viktor Babaryko and Kolesnikova, two jailed opposition politicians.
The near-certainty that she won last year’s vote and her advocacy in the time since mean that she is still the most prominent opposition figure, though she may not remain the undisputed leader of the opposition to Lukashenko. Babaryko and Pavel Latushko, a former diplomat, have both announced their intention to found new parties (though there have been no legal political parties in Belarus for two decades).
The past year in exile has been personally difficult, Tikhanovskaya said. She hasn’t seen her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a blogger who ran an anti-Lukashenko YouTube channel, since she left Belarus. He was imprisoned in May 2020, days after he announced that he was going to contest the upcoming election. Tikhanovskaya ran in his place. “The fact that I can’t communicate with my husband, that my two children haven't seen their daddy for over a year – of course, it’s painful.”
She feels, though, that she has no choice but to keep calling for the end of the Lukashenko regime. “I, along with many others, am responsible for those who sacrificed their personal freedom for the future freedom of Belarus,” she insisted.
Does she believe she will be able to return to Belarus? “I know that I will. Sooner or later, I will go home. I will be reunited with my husband and we will build a new Belarus together.”
[See also: EU unity over the Belarusian migrant crisis may not last]
This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos