The political leader of the people of Belarus Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya visited Estonia on January 21-23. She met with the president, prime minister and leading Riigikogu politicians and attended an extraordinary virtual session of the UN Security Council following an invitation from Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu.
“Information from the Belarusian Association of Journalists suggests that independent journalists were detained over 470 times and arrested in administrative procedure 97 times and that trumped up charges were brought against 15 journalists and 50 websites blocked in 2020,” Tsikhanouskaya said during her presentation.
I met with the Belarusian opposition leader immediately after the virtual session.
What was your main message for the Security Council?
My main message was that repressions are taking place on a mass scale in Belarus, also against journalists. The latter should be untouchable even in war zones because they are just doing their job. What is happening in Belarus, where accredited journalists are arrested and jailed, is of course nonsense and what we brought in front of the UN Security Council.
Democratic forces in Belarus have the support of people all over Europe, while the pro-dictator media is trying to suggest the entire protest is financed and orchestrated by the West. How can you fight this kind of propaganda warfare? What effect do official media channels have on the population in Belarus?
We are not fighting it. What they are doing is not information warfare but simpleminded attempts to sell something that does not exist. We know what is really happening, why fight it?
There could be a small group of elderly people who still tune in to state media. The rest of Belarus understands full well what is going on because it is impossible to fool us any longer. People do not believe what they see on television. The entire staff of national state television was fired and replaced with people from Russia after the violence of August 9. Therefore, fighting such a war is pointless. They will lose because no one believes the official authorities anymore.
What are these imported propaganda workers posing as Russian journalists doing on Belarusian networks?
They are badmouthing everyone who has dared speak up against the regime and the dictator. They are constantly smearing the majority and the opposition, while it only works on very few Belarusians.
Russia is an ally of Belarus. How big is its effect on Belarusian domestic politics? To what extent does Vladimir Putin support the Lukashenko regime? How else has Russia helped the authorities?
Belarus has always been a sovereign and independent country. The West knows precious little about us. It is believed we are somehow very similar to Russia. That is not the case. We are a completely different nation, while we have always had friendly ties with the Russian people. We must remain independent. Our identity and perception of self grew even stronger last year. We will not be trading our independence under any circumstances.
That said, we have always maintained friendly relations with Russia. But because Russian authorities are supporting the violence Lukashenko’s regime is visiting on the people, there are fewer people today who would like a close relationship with Russia.
Where could events in Belarus go from here? How far is Lukashenko willing to go to quash protests? Is the regime willing to arrest tens of thousands more on top of 30,000 people already arrested?
I believe that Lukashenko realizes he has lost. He is looking for a way out. He wants to save face after losing. But I think he is willing to arrest more people and use violence. We would not like it to continue!
Our protests are peaceful and constitutional, while what his OMON and other security forces are doing is illegitimate and contrary to international law.
We do not know how far he will go, however, if we listen to recordings of Minister of Internal Affairs Nikolai Karpenkov’s speeches, many more may suffer and tens of thousands be arrested. It needs to stop, and we are looking for ways to do that. Together with international organizations – OSCE et al. – and the international public.
What helps Belarusians stay calm and peaceful even if brutal violence is used against them? How long will non-violent protests work and could demonstrations become bloodier in the future?
Calmness and peacefulness are in our blood. We have always been very patient. Perhaps it is not always for the best, I cannot say. We are who we are. Of course, there are more radically minded people among us. But I am sure that had there been more radical protests, they would have been interpreted as a provocation by the authorities and helped sanction violence. We maintain that we are peaceful and acting based on legal grounds. We have the right to free and fair elections. Could major bloodshed occur in the future – I would hate for that to happen!
We can only imagine what Lukashenko would have done had there been violence on the part of demonstrators, considering what he has done to peaceful protesters!
You are for all intents and purposes the political leader of the Belarusian society as very few countries consider Alexander Lukashenko who hijacked the election a legitimate head of state. How are you holding up under this great responsibility, considering you are a newcomer to politics and that it is always difficult to lead a nation from emigration?
It is true that I am new to politics. But I have had the chance to learn very quickly because the people have put their trust in me and elevated me to where I am. I am also grateful to all the countries where I am treated as the national leader.
It is difficult to lead a people from emigration, while I will simply have to work twice as hard knowing there is no alternative today. The people understand I cannot return home and still support me. I would be imprisoned immediately were I to return to Belarus! It is standard practice for the regime to evict everyone who stands up in hopes of the situation playing out in their favor. I am very grateful to the international public and other countries that support us and make it possible for us to do our work. If I feel I can do it, it is because of support at home and from people in other countries.
Regimes built on violence and intimidation can come crashing down suddenly if their mental energy and trust runs out. Are you prepared to take over running Belarus to avoid a power vacuum?
It could happen in Belarus and is something for which we need to prepare. We are working on economic programs and a constitutional reform and preparing for a transitional period. The most important thing is to retain balance and improve the situation gradually to avoid people suffering too much. Only hold accountable persons who directly facilitated violence against peaceful citizens. The main thing is to keep the peace and I believe we are up to the task.
Around one million Belarusians took part in street protests last year. Will we see more this year?
I will not be making predictions. All I know is that despite the violence and brutality they have been treated to, the people of Belarus will move forward as they want a new Belarus, new elections.
Of course, people are very afraid because they have been intimidated for a long time. But we need to start believing in one another again. Protests are understandably quieter today because it is winter. However, people are using this time to organize, reinforce structures. We are seeing the formation of strike committees, nurses and teachers’ societies. These preparations are well underway.