Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Is Overcoming Her Fears
“Every country has its own path to democracy,” Tsikhanouskaya, who calls herself the leader of democratic Belarus, says. “And this is ours.”
By Masha Gessen
December 13, 2020
Photograph by Daniel Hofer / Laif / Redux
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has spent more than half of her short political career in exile. Six months ago, the former English teacher was a stay-at-home mom. Her husband, the businessman Siarhei Tsikhanouski, often used his popular YouTube channel to criticize the regime of the dictator Alexander Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus for twenty-six years. In May, as Belarus prepared for the quinquennial ritual that Lukashenka calls a Presidential election, Tsikhanouski, who had planned to run, was arrested. So was another opposition candidate, Viktar Babaryka. A third, Valery Tsepkalo, was not allowed on the ballot. Three women—Tsepkalo’s wife, Veronika; Babaryka’s campaign director, Maria Kalesnikava; and Tsikhanouskaya—joined forces and put Tsikhanouskaya forward as the opposition candidate for President. She was allowed on the ballot, apparently because Lukashenka didn’t take her seriously. On Election Day, August 9th, she appeared to get a majority of the vote. Lukashenka claimed victory, however. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in protest and have continued protesting since. Every weekend for the last eighteen weeks, people have marched in the streets of Minsk, the Belarusian capital, and other cities and towns. Lukashenka’s forces have cracked down brutally, jailing upward of a thousand protesters some weekends, but the demonstrations continue.
The day after the election, Tsikhanouskaya entered the building of the central election commission in Minsk; the following day, she posted a video in which she said that she had been forced to leave the country. Since then, she has been based in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. (The two women who aided her are in exile and jail. Veronika Tsepkalo left Belarus just before the election. Kalesnikava was arrested after she refused to leave the country.) The United States and the European Union have not recognized Lukashenka’s claim to have won the election, and Tsikhanouskaya has become her country’s representative to the world. She and I talked over Zoom during the last week of November. Our conversation has been translated from Russian and slightly condensed.
Have you congratulated President-elect Joe Biden?
Yes, we congratulated him as soon as the results were announced. My team sent a letter. We have a lot of hope for the Biden Presidency. He took a strong stand on Belarus, even before the election, and we are confident that he will be true to his word.
How do you sign your letters?
I write “leader of democratic Belarus.” I’ve decided not to identify myself as the President-elect, because I feel that I don’t have the moral authority to do so. All the documentation of the election has been destroyed, so I can no longer obtain proof. A lot of people have asked me, and some demanded, that I call myself the President-elect, but I’m a stickler for rules, maybe too much of one. I might be wrong to say no. Some people call me the leader of the opposition, but that’s inaccurate, because we are the majority. I think “leader of democratic Belarus” is the best description, because it reflects what we are trying to build together.
The prime ministers, foreign ministers, and diplomats that I meet with know that I represent the people of Belarus. My role is no more and no less important than that of any Belarusian today—it’s just that the Belarusian people have given me the right to speak for them on the world stage and to make certain decisions. We keep in constant touch with people in Belarus—students, teachers, factory workers, doctors and nurses—to insure that we know what they are feeling and what they want.
What do you hear most often?
Most often I hear, “Do something!” People are feeling desperate. Our principled stand on nonviolence restrains us quite a bit. A lot of people are ready to take more decisive action, to storm and occupy buildings. But I say, “Can you imagine the bloodshed?” I know that people are suffering behind bars, but at least they are alive. We are doing all we can to keep the world’s attention on us. But many are feeling very disappointed and frustrated. When I was just a regular person, I used to think that Europe was so close and so big, and its leaders so powerful that they would surely do something; they couldn’t stand idly by. Now I see that although they have been expressing their concern—their solidarity—there is nothing they can really do.
We’ve been working on instituting economic sanctions for months now, and it’s all so slow and complicated. European leaders are treading carefully, always looking over their shoulders at Russia. For us, this is painful. Every time I meet with heads of state, I try to convey this pain. We try to tell them about the innocent people who have been locked up and about the humiliation they are being subjected to. We try to appeal to their conscience, saying, “You proclaim the primacy of human rights, and look what’s happening in the country next door, while all you do is express concern. How is that possible?”
I grew up in a family that taught us to always be grateful. So that may be my mistake. I am gradually coming to realize that I shouldn’t be grateful for mere statements of concern—that we need to demand concrete action. I’m learning, very slowly. I’ve been banned from saying that I don’t feel like a politician, a leader, that I’m just a weak woman—I used to say that a lot, because that’s how I felt. I’ve had to become tougher, and that’s difficult. I was taught to always try to understand why others do what they do, and now I must overcome that, because I’m acting on behalf of millions of people. There’s a constant state of tension between what I feel I can do and what I have to do. Every Belarusian is overcoming their fears right now, and I have to do that, too. Two months ago, I couldn’t bring myself to say words like “dictator” or “usurper” about Lukashenka. The more he cracks down, the easier it gets for me, of course.
Who forbade you to say that you are “just a weak woman”?
World leaders. Several people have told me, “Stop saying that you are weak—you’ve already shown that you are strong.” I used to say that I wasn’t a politician. Maybe it’s because of my country’s dictatorship that my conception of a politician was flawed. I used to think that as long as you can feel the pain of individual people, as long as every arrest affects you personally, you are not a politician, because politics is the work of making decisions without thinking about the human cost. I’m afraid of becoming like that, but that’s what I used to think a politician was. I met with Dalia Grybauskaitė, the former Lithuanian President. [Grybauskaitė, the first woman to hold her nation’s highest office, served from 2009 until 2019.] She said, “Even if you feel weak, don’t say it. You have to sit down at the table with leaders with the confidence that you are a leader, that you know what you are talking about. Don’t downplay the skills you’ve acquired in this time.” Dalia schooled me. She said, “You come to talk about your people, you shouldn’t put yourself in a position to be condescended to.”
When you talk about the crackdown in Belarus, what do you say?
At first, when we started speaking publicly—especially before big audiences, like national parliaments—I would bring large photographs. It’s one thing to hear “thirty thousand people detained”—numbers don’t move anyone. It’s another to see pictures: of a person who is blue all over after being beaten in detention, juxtaposed with our peaceful protests, demonstrators carrying flowers. I always try to talk about specific people. For example, a teacher, a mother of three, who refused to falsify election results—and now she is serving a thirty-day sentence in inhumane conditions. There is no water in the cells, no soap
In jails, some of the guards say, “We won’t let you leave here without COVID.” They will intentionally place infected inmates in cells with protesters. It’s filthy. Medical care is not available. People get infected.
We recently learned of another shocking incident: a number of women were taken to a jail, forced to squat, and made to duckwalk the length of the hallway to their cells. Some of those women were in their sixties. It’s just humiliation. It’s done in order to crush your spirit, so that you wouldn’t even dream of continuing to protest after you are released. Some people—I wouldn’t say that they are broken, but some people do stop after being treated like that. But others come out and ask, “Well, when’s the next protest?” None of us knows how we’d behave in this situation. So we try to get parliament members and diplomats to visualize all these horrors, to feel them. We want them to know that when we say “violence,” we are not talking about someone being hit with a nightstick once. That nightstick is used to rape people, women and men. And we are talking about forty people in a five-person cell, where they can’t even sit down.
How do people react when you describe this?
With outward calm, you know. I hope that I’ve shocked them to their core. But on the outside, they just go on talking about what can be done.
What do you think should be done now?
There should be a very broad list of people who face individual sanctions. For now, sanctions apply only to highly placed officials who’ve faced sanctions before and have parked their money elsewhere and are generally prepared. But people lower down—the principals of the schools where election results were falsified, the Interior Ministry troops whom we’ve been able to identify, heads of jails, hospital directors who fire doctors for speaking out—they’ve never faced sanctions before. They may be doing all this out of fear that the state will pressure them or their families. But the risk that they would land on this sanction list and, say, get barred from taking a shopping trip to Poland or Lithuania could counterbalance that fear. And, next time, the hospital director might turn a blind eye to the doctor’s political views.
So would sanctioning these people that no one’s heard of mean banning them from entering the E.U.?
Yes. And we also need the E.U. to impose economic sanctions against major industrial enterprises, such as [the oil giant] Naftan, and [the fertilizer manufacturers] Belaruskali and Grodno Azot. We are asking for loans to these companies, purchases from them, and supplies of raw materials and spare parts to be temporarily suspended. Our working group has calculated that even if everything stops, the regime will have the resources to keep going for another couple of months. Remember how, after August 9th, thousands of workers went on strike? They were intimidated, forced back to work, literally with nightsticks in some cases. But now, gradually, strike committees are starting to form and people are making a considered decision to join them, not an impulsive one like when they first went out into the streets. This is how society is formed. I’ll be honest with you, though: these committees are growing, but at the rate of something like five members a day, and that’s not enough.
How many people would you say are participating in protests now?
Those who have actually joined street protests, or have gone on strike, make up ten to fifteen per cent of the population. Some of them are already locked up. Then there are those we call partisans, and they will make all the difference. Hanging a banner on a bridge that says “Go away and take your special forces with you”—that has an impact. It demoralizes the state and drains its physical resources. It’s step by step, though. I always have this voice in my head that we need to move faster, because people are behind bars, people are suffering. But there is no superhero, no world leader who holds sway over Lukashenka. When Angela Merkel calls, he just doesn’t pick up. He talks only to Russia and China.
Have you had contact with U.S. diplomats?
One of my first meetings was with [Deputy Secretary of State Stephen] Biegun and [Deputy Assistant Secretary George] Kent [on August 24th]. We spoke at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, and right after that, Mr. Biegun travelled to Moscow to meet with [the Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov, but nothing came of that. It’s obvious, though, that Lukashenka’s departure is a matter of time—a year, perhaps. Putin is a savvy politician and he must realize that Lukashenka is politically bankrupt. Whether it’s from economic pressure or something else, people will soon stop tolerating him. Yes, people are tired and maybe they will lay low through the winter, because it’s hard to be stomped into the dirt by the security forces and then be taken to jail all cold and wet. But in the spring it’s going to flare up again.
What figures do you have now for how many people have been detained?
Thirty thousand people have gone through detention, for at least twenty-four hours. We put the number of political prisoners at a hundred and fifty-six, but this number is always rising. Ten people have died, killed either during a protest or in the aftermath of one. I know there are wars going on in the world, with thousands of people dead, so someone might think that ten is not such a great number. But it’s ten people killed in peacetime, people who weren’t armed. For us, ten people is a lot. There are more than a thousand ongoing criminal prosecutions, for ostensibly organizing a mass protest and such. The whole world was talking about us, about how proud they are of us, about a women’s revolution, but those words don’t make things easier for people.
Do you have contact with your husband?
Yes, through his defense attorney. Siarhei follows the news and he tries to make suggestions, but I can see that his perspective has been warped: he’s been behind bars for six months and he watches all the propaganda television. So he writes, “Ask the U.S. for help!” We did, a long time ago. I tell him how the kids are doing. We can’t talk about his case.
What are the current charges against him?
Five different crimes! Inciting a riot, endangering the nation—none of them is supported by any evidence.
Can you communicate with Maria Kalesnikava?
Just through her lawyer. She couldn’t get in to see her for twenty days. Now she’s had all her books confiscated. Maria is very strong. Maybe she is our future President.
Can I ask you what happened just before you left Minsk?
Yes, but I’m going to be brief. I was told I had to choose between my children and prison. I chose the children, of course. In retrospect, I wish someone had told me about the methods authorities could use on me—that the people presenting me with this choice could be bluffing. I wasn’t prepared. I can’t tell you specifically what they said and what they threatened me with, but they went into great detail on what lay in store for me.
Who were these people who were talking to you?
Highly placed law-enforcement officials.
And this was happening right in the election-commission headquarters?
Yes. They talked to me there and then took me home to await departure from Minsk. I had come to the election commission at three in the afternoon, and was taken out at seven in the evening. By ten or eleven that night, I was on my way out of the city. My children were already in Lithuania.
How long had your children been in Vilnius?
A month. I’d taken them out of the country after I got a phone call—I was submitting signatures to get on the ballot, and, by this point, everyone who worked on signature collecting had already been arrested, so I went myself. In the first city I went to, as I stood on the steps of the municipal administration, I got a phone call saying, “You’d better stop doing that, or else you will be arrested and your children will go to an orphanage, since both of their parents will be behind bars.” I was a teary mess—I’m sorry, I’m a woman, and I was awfully scared—but friends said, “We’ll get your kids visas and take them out of the country fast.” That made me feel at ease.
When Siarhei was arrested, I was left on my own. I met a couple, Alexander and Maria Moroz, and we became very close. They were with me through the whole campaign. And when I had to get my kids out of the country, Alexander took them himself. He left his own family to go with my kids. Maria stayed with me until the end—she was detained right before the election as a way to exert pressure on me. And when I had to leave, I asked that she be allowed to leave with me. She, her kids, and I went together. Now we are all living in one house—the two of them and their two kids and my two kids and I. Their kids are fourteen and three years old, and mine are ten and five. We get along very well.
What’s your routine like these days?
In the morning, we get the kids ready for school and day care. Then I go to work. I have a schedule prepared: interviews, brainstorming sessions, calls with Belarus. I have an hour-long lunch break, but otherwise I am scheduled solid from when I arrive, at nine, until I go home, at seven.
Where is work?
When we first got here, while our team was coming together, we would gather in different apartments. Now we have a fairly large office—a Vilnius entrepreneur has given it to us rent-free.
How big is your team now?
We have what we call Tsikhanouskaya Headquarters—that’s eighteen people. Then there is the coördination council [which was established to facilitate a democratic transfer of power]. Its leadership is all either in prison or in Poland, so we consider Warsaw their base. We know that eventually we are going to have to build the state anew. The economy is in shambles. I am starting to talk to people about supporting us financially during the transition period and investing in the economy after—that’s the economic working group. We also have a group working on constitutional reform, and one on human rights. We have created a committee in Vilnius that’s starting to investigate crimes committed in Belarus—the beatings and murders of people during protests. We are starting with three cases for which we have all the evidence, including the names of people who carried out the beatings. They fear sanctions. Sanctions hurt. So we need to use them.