Portada | Europa | Svietlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian leader in exile: “Russia denies the right of Belarus and Ukraine to exist as sovereign countries”

Svietlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian leader in exile: “Russia denies the right of Belarus and Ukraine to exist as sovereign countries”

Svietlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian leader in exile, at the European Parliament. European Parliament – CC BY 2.0 DEED
Svietlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian leader in exile. Source: European Parliament – CC BY 2.0 DEED

We interviewed Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarusian leader in exile since the controversial 2020 elections. After denouncing electoral fraud against President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Tikhanovskaya has led the opposition movement through the creation of a Coordination Council for political transition. The interview takes place in a context marked by opposition calls to “liberate” the country, tensions between Belarus and the West and the intensification of fighting in the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Versión en castellano – English version

– [Question]: First of all, we would like to clarify your position. Are you the elected President of Belarus, or what position do you hold? Why do you think there was fraud in the 2020 elections?

[Answer]: President-Elect — it would probably be the most appropriate description. I won the election but did not take office. The regime of Alexander Lukashenka refused to step down and seized power by force. Foreign politicians often call me the leader of free Belarus or the leader of democratic Belarus,  also the Head of the United Transitional Cabinet, which is a de facto of our government being in exile. 

How do we know that we won elections in 2020? There is multiple evidence. Experts have analyzed over 100 protocols from polling stations where votes were counted fairly. More than 70% of the votes were cast for Tsikhanouskaya. The regime quickly burned and destroyed the protocols and ballots and published different results, giving Lukashenka more than 80%. Also, independent electoral monitors have launched an alternative system to count votes, named Golos. People took pictures of their ballots and confirmed their votes online. Organizers of the alternative vote count believe that Tsikhanouskaya should receive at least 55% of all votes and win in the first round—the same is true of independent opinion polls conducted before and after election day.

Para ampliar: Yuri Ambrazevich, viceministro de Exteriores de Bielorrusia: “Rusia nunca pidió que el ejército bielorruso entrara en el conflicto en Ucrania”

Also, people could express their discord with the regime by wearing white bracelets on their hands or folding their ballots in a specific way. On the election day, almost everyone had this bracelet. 

But the main evidence is massive rallies that flooded Belarusian cities – according to polls, more than 1,5 million people across Belarus took part in protest demonstrations (with a population of 9 million people). Peaceful protests (by protesters) continued for several months. It’s an extraordinary mobilization for Belarusians. People went to streets with the white-red-white flags (this is our national flag, which is an alternative to the red-green flag of the Soviet period of Belorussia and the current regime). It was people’s reaction to electoral fraud.

With the help of Putin, the regime cracked down on protesters. Dozens of thousands have been detained. At least 15,000 criminal cases have been opened, and 60,000 people have passed through detention. It was the terror Belarus had ever seen, and it continues till today.

– [Q]: What economic changes would you apply in Belarus? Are you in favour of privatizing industry and large state-owned companies? And to reduce the weight of the State in the economy?

[A]: Our economists believe that the Belarusian economy needs significant reforms that encourage private enterprise and innovation, while maintaining important social guarantees. Definitely, the weight of the State in the economy must be reduced. We need to boost the private sector and attract investments in our country. Belarus has huge economic potential that can be realized in full only in deep cooperation with the European Union, the United States, and Ukraine.

– [Q]:  Aleksandr Lukashenko signed 28 integration programs with Russia in the framework of the Union State in November 2021. Then there was a constitutional change that allowed the creation of joint military groups between Russia and Belarus in 2023. What is your opinion of the Union State of Russia and Belarus? Would you maintain it, deepen it, or abandon it?

[A]: We should abandon the Belarus-Russian Union State. It is not in the interest of the Belarusian people and makes Belarus fully dependent and tied with Russia. It is slowing down the development of Belarus, both political and economical. Moreover, it is a direct threat to our independence and sovereignty. Under the umbrella of “Union State”, Belarus was dragged into the criminal war against Ukraine. Under its umbrella, Belarus was involved in the abduction of Ukrainian children from occupied territories. We should revise all the deals with Russia signed by illegitimate Lukashenka.

We, Belarusians, see our future in Europe. It is where we historically belong. First step – Belarus must become a member of the Council of Europe,  next step – the European Union. I believe that Belarus will become a sovereign nation that respects its neighbors and international law. 

– [Q]: One of the signed points refers to the energy market. How do you think Belarus could have solved the “tax maneuver” with which Russia reduced Belarusian profits from oil exports? Do you consider it beneficial that Belarus can access “Russian domestic market” prices for gas and oil with this agreement?

[A]: The “tax maneuver” by Russia has indeed impacted Belarus’ revenues from oil exports. While it’s beneficial to negotiate fair prices for energy resources, reliance on a single supplier undermines our independence. We need to diversify our energy sources and invest in renewable energy to reduce dependency on Russian oil and gas. 

– [Q]: Pavel Latushka told us that Belarus should be granted the status of “occupied territory”. Do you agree?

[A]: Russia is doing in Belarus the same thing as it is doing in Ukrainian-occupied territories. We call it “creeping occupation”. They don’t formalize Russian control over Belarus because it will cause a public revolt. Belarusians will never support it, so they do it quietly.

Para ampliar: Pavel Latushka: “Es muy importante para nosotros que se otorgue a Bielorrusia el estatus de territorio ocupado”

I agree with Pavel Latushka to some extent. The level of control and influence Russia has over Belarus does feel like an occupation. However, I would say that it’s too early to give up. Perhaps, Putin wants to think that Belarus is a done deal for him, but he is wrong. Also, I encourage the world not to give up on Belarus either. We should not leave Belarus as a consolation prize to Putin. Of course, control over Belarus has a crucial strategic importance for him, but it’s also his weakest link. Dismantling the regime in Belarus will be a huge hit on the Kremlin and a great help for Ukraine.

– [Q]: What is your proposal for the European Union to help overthrow Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government?

[A]: We propose a two-folded strategy: isolating the regime on one hand and supporting the people on the other. Pressure through sanctions, accountability. Assistance to democratic structures, media, and civil society. We want the European Union to adopt a coordinated strategy on Belarus. We don’t ask you to fight for us; we need assistance with our peaceful struggle. Changes in Belarus could become a game-changer, impacting the region’s whole situation.

– [Q]: Also in Ukraine we have seen armed groups demanding the “liberation of Belarus”. Would you support these groups intervening in Belarusian territory to combat the current regime?

[A]: Our struggle for freedom and our resistance should remain non-violent. I believe that peaceful changes in Belarus are possible, and in the longer run will be more sustainable. For peaceful change, we need a broad international coalition and a resolute strategy that includes pressure on the regime, its political isolation, and assistance to democratic movement and civil society. Also, the weaker Russia is, the more chances there are for peaceful change in Belarus.Therefore, we wholeheartedly support Ukraine.

– [Q]: During the crisis of migrants between Poland and Belarus, several European leaders took the government of Aleksandr Lukashenko as a valid interlocutor to talk about the return of migrants to their countries. Among them were Angela Merkel or Josep Borrell. In fact, Borrell pointed out that “We don’t recognize [Lukashenko] but we have to deal [with him]”. What do you think about these contacts? Do you think they were legitimate?

[A]: I understand why these calls took place. But did they help? I am not sure. The migration crisis continued and escalated. Just simple calls for the rationality of the dictator don’t help. What might help – the strong ultimatum: if you continue doing this or that, consequences will be dire for you.  

Communication with the regime may be necessary in acute crises, such as the migrant situation or negotiating the release of political prisoners. People in prisons are literally dying, and this is where we need international interference. However, this communication should not legitimize the regime; it must focus solely on resolving specific humanitarian issues.

– [Q]: On the issue of sanctions, when sanctions have been directed at Belarusian leaders, they have come more quickly under Russian influence. Do you support sanctions being directed only at Belarusian leaders or do you consider it necessary that they affect key sectors of the Belarusian economy such as population movement or trade?

[A]: Sanctions should be both individual and sectoral, targeting those sectors of the state economy that fuel the dictatorial machine: military, petrochemicals, banking sectors, steel, but also transit of goods. The dictatorial regime gains a lot from the transit of goods between EU, Russia, and China. Also the broad individual sanctions on perpetrators. Of course, they are mostly symbolic but necessary to show that there will not be impunity.

I am against sanctions against the population and restrictions on the movement of ordinary Belarusians. Belarusians spoke clearly against dictatorship and against Russian criminal war. Instead, while isolating and sanctioning Lukashenka’s regime, we should increase the mobility of Belarusians, and strenghen people-to-people contacts. We need more visas, more communication, exchanges, and scholarships – not leave Belarusians alone with Putin and Lukashenka. 

 "March of unity". Protest rally against Lukashenko, 6 September 2020. Minsk, Belarus.
 “March of unity”. Protest rally against Lukashenko, 6 September 2020. Minsk, Belarus. Source: Homoatrox – CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

– [Q]: Belarus modified its Constitution in 2022 to, among other things, reduce presidential power, limit it to two terms and make it subordinate to the legislature, with a new status for the Belarusian People’s Assembly. Would you agree with these changes if you were in power in Minsk or which ones would you propose for the Constitution?

[A]: We don’t recognize Lukashenka’s amendments in the Constitution and the bodies he has created. The constitutional changes made under Lukashenka’s regime lack legitimacy as they were conducted without public consent and in an environment of repression. Since 1994, our constitution was raped and changed many times in the personal interest of Lukashenka, not the people of Belarus.

We have to return to the pre-Lukashenka Constitution and then conduct the comprehensive constitutional reform that will ensure separation of power, genuine democracy, and respect for human rights, so we will never allow tyranny to return to Belarus. Our experts already drafted the new Constitution in consultation with international experts and the Venice Commission. Right now, we have a broad public discussion on the draft. When changes in Belarus will start – we need everything prepared. You can check our version of the Constitution draft online.

– [Q]: Are you for or against the membership of Belarus in the European Union and NATO?

[A]: I support closer ties between Belarus and the European Union. We already formalized the relationship between the EU and democratic Belarus by creating the EU-Belarus consultative group. It’s just the first step. I don’t see any reason why, after democratic changes, Belarus should not be able to apply for EU membership. Membership in the European Union could reveal the true potential of our nation and country, and strengthen economic stability, sovereignty, and independence. I also believe, that without Belarus, the European project can not be complete.

Para ampliar: El grito de Bielorrusia

As for NATO, for many years Belarus had fruitful cooperation with the Alliance within Partnership for Peace and other programs. Regarding possible [NATO] membership, it must be decided by the Belarusian people, obviously after democratic changes. Today, this question does not arise.

– [Q]: I would also like to know what would you do with Belarus’ membership in other international organizations such as the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization], the EAEU [Eurasian Economic Union] and the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization].

[A]: Belarus’ participation in all international organizations should be based on our national interests, respect for our sovereignty, and democratic principles. We should reassess our involvement in organizations that do not align with these principles. Membership in CSTO or Eurasian Economic Union should definitely be revised. 

– [Q]: Lukashenko’s government has pointed out that Russia never asked them to participate in the war in Ukraine. However, it is clear that they allowed Russia to launch the full-scale invasion and attack from its territory, how do you think the Belarusian leaders should be held accountable or not?

[A]: Lukashenko and his entourage, who facilitated Russia’s aggression against Ukraine should definitely be held accountable. They have betrayed Belarus’ neutrality and contributed to the suffering of our Ukrainian neighbors. Lukashenka hoped that this war would become “victorious” for him and Putin, but they underestimated the bravery of the Ukrainian people and the resistance of Belarusians. All Russian troops and nuclear weapons must be withdrawn from Belarus. It’s not negotiable.

– [Q]: Should Russia be divided into several countries to prevent it from accumulating power for new wars like the one in Ukraine?

[A]: The future of Russia should be decided by the peoples who inhabit it. I hope that one day we will see a democratic and peaceful Russia without imperial ambitions. But now we are dealing with reality, namely Putin’s Russia, which denies the right of Belarus and Ukraine to exist as sovereign countries. Current Russia is already waging an aggressive war in Ukraine and supporting the “quiet” war of the Lukashenko regime against the Belarusian people. It became a threat not only to our countries but the entire continent. We need safeguards that will prevent Russian imperialism from rising again in the future.

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