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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."

Go deeper

Starbucks drops worker vaccine mandate after SCOTUS ruling

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks announced in a memo to employees Tuesday that it has dropped plans to implement a vaccine mandate for all U.S. workers, AP reported on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The company's decision comes in response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

1 hour ago - Health

Omicron hits American hospitals disproportionately hard

Expand chart
Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

America is seeing more COVID hospitalizations than other wealthy countries during the Omicron surge, according to Our World in Data.

Why it matters: Vaccines keep the vast majority of COVID cases out of the hospital, but vaccination rates are also lower in the U.S. than these other countries.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: The end of the Omicron wave is in sight — Transplants rebound from COVID lull.
  2. Vaccines: WHO: No evidence that healthy children, teens need boosters — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden to announce plan to distribute 400 million masks for free — Government website for free COVID tests launches early.
  4. World: WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older.
  5. Variant tracker