Dec 20, 2021 - World

Belarus opposition leader: Fight goes on after husband's sentencing

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled opposition leader of Belarus, was in a meeting with Western ambassadors to the EU last week when she learned that her husband had been sentenced to 18 years in prison for his activism.

What she's saying: "It was very emotionally difficult to accept, but it didn't change anything in our movement," Tsikhanouskaya told Axios in a Zoom interview from Vilnius, Lithuania. She fled there last year after Aleksandr Lukashenko's regime began rounding up opposition leaders.

  • "It doesn't matter if people get five, 15, 18 years — we have to work, we have to do what we are doing. Just step by step, putting pressure on the regime, support civil society to release all our friends, all our beloved," she said.
  • "It was difficult emotionally to cope, but that day I did a lot of interviews and lived through this time after time after time. But I didn't cry. It was like emptiness inside."

The big picture: Tsikhanouskaya has spent the last year meeting with countless government officials — including President Biden — to urge them not to forget the people fighting for democracy in Belarus.

  • Lukashenko saw his iron grip on power shaken for the first time in three decades last August, when mass protests erupted after he claimed to have defeated Tsikhanouskaya by an implausible 70% in the 2020 presidential election.
  • Lukashenko's swift and brutal crackdown was followed by multiple rounds of sanctions from the West — with Lukashenko picking further fights by forcing a Ryanair flight to land in order to arrest an activist and manufacturing a migrant crisis on his border with Poland.

Between the lines: Tsikhanouskaya told Axios that in every meeting with U.S. and European officials, she urges them to close sanctions loopholes and stop with the "half measures" that give the regime "opportunity to survive."

Flashback: Two years ago, Tsikhanouskaya was an English teacher, her husband was a blogger, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was meeting personally with Lukashenko to try to build a wedge between Minsk and Moscow.

  • Today, Tsikhanouskaya is the face of the democratic opposition, her husband is a political prisoner, and Lukashenko is a pariah waging a "hybrid war" against the West.

"You can't choose between that and this," Tsikhanouskaya responded, when asked whether she ever wishes she could return to her former life.

  • "That time was wonderful from my private point of view. Everything was calm, I spent time with my children and my husband."
  • "But the process that we are witnessing at the moment, the process in the country, in people's minds — it's such an important historical moment. Yes, it is difficult. But I'm sure no one's freedom has ever been given for nothing."

The bottom line: "I want normal life with my husband, but in a democratic country."

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