Svetlana Tikhanovskaya does not like being called an opposition leader. First of all, she says, the movement she has inspired in Belarus is no longer the opposition: “we are the majority.” And secondly, she says, she was the winner of Belarus’s Aug. 9 presidential election.
“My role now can be described as national leader, I think. And, of course, as the national, chosen president,” Tikhanovskaya told BuzzFeed News in an exclusive interview Monday from Vilnius, Lithuania, where she has been living in exile for the last month. Shaking her head as she considered the events of the past several weeks, she added: “I never could have imagined that I would be in this place.”
In just three months, the 37-year-old mother of two has gone from being a self-described “housewife” with no political ambitions to becoming a hero of the protests shaking Belarus and dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year grip on power.
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians inspired by her presidential campaign have protested in cities across Belarus — even in places Lukashenko considered his heartland — since an election that demonstrators believe was won by Tikhanovskaya. Her supporters said it was rigged in favor of the brutish and mustachioed incumbent Lukashenko, who claimed to have won an astounding 80% of all votes, versus 10% for Tikhanovskaya; the US and the EU said the election was neither free nor fair.
Lukashenko, a former Soviet-era collective farm manager known as “Europe’s last dictator,” has ruled Belarus with an iron first since 1994. All previous attempts by political opponents and protesters to oust him were crushed by his notorious riot police and KGB security services. In 2008, the US tightened sanctions against Belarus over worsening human rights abuses, and Lukashenko responded by expelling the US ambassador and 30 of 35 diplomats. (The two countries nominated new ambassadors earlier this year as relations warmed, but the confirmation of Washington’s new envoy is now uncertain.) The American democracy group Freedom House rated Belarus one of the least free nations in the world in its 2020 report.
But despite claiming a landslide victory, Lukashenko is on the ropes. Defying demands of the protesters and much of the international community, he has so far refused to leave office and dug in. Twice in the past two weeks, he has appeared increasingly desperate, donning riot gear and carrying an automatic assault rifle on the grounds of his presidential palace in Minsk, which he ordered to be surrounded with razor wire and guarded by the military and armored infantry fighting vehicles. His press service claimed it was all for self-defense when crowds of demonstrators marched on the palace.
But the crowds of more than 100,000 protesters — comprising students and teachers, tech entrepreneurs and state factory workers, pensioners and others — who have faced off with Lukashenko’s police and military forces have been largely peaceful.
“It’s hard to know what he’s doing,” Tikhanovskaya said about Lukashenko’s gun-toting antics. “We don’t understand if he wants to show us that he’s ready to kill his people or maybe he’s so afraid of his people that he has to have his gun.”
A former teacher and English translator, Tikhanovskaya said Lukashenko allowed her on the ballot because he didn’t think she had any chance of winning. The Soviet-esque strongman said during the campaign that a woman president “would collapse, poor thing.” He was more worried about Tikhanovskaya’s husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was arrested while trying to register to be on the ballot and is currently languishing in a jail outside of the Belarusian capital, Minsk. He is able to communicate with his wife only through a lawyer twice a week, she said.
Tikhanovskaya said she stepped in to take his place “for love,” never thinking that she would find herself in the position she is in today. “He feels as good as a person in jail could feel,” she said of her husband. “He knows what’s going on in Belarus and he believes in the Belarusian people.”
Gone are the evenings at home when Tikhanovskaya said she would cook cutlets for her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter and dream of where the family would take its once-a-year vacation on the Black Sea. Now she spends her days fighting for the future of her country, meeting with European heads of state and top US officials, and briefing the United Nations Security Council.
At the moment, she is doing it from exile. On Aug. 11, she was detained in Minsk, interrogated for hours by Lukashenko’s security services, and forced to film a video urging her supporters to stop protesting before being driven to the border and forced to leave Belarus under circumstances she still does not want to speak about in detail. She said the decision to flee was “one of the most difficult decisions of my life” and that “one day I will be able to tell the whole story.” Her children, whom she sent away to an EU country during her campaign after their school reported that state services were building a case against her to have them removed from her care, have since joined her.
Further underscoring the dangers facing opponents of Lukashenko, hours before she spoke with BuzzFeed News, Tikhanovskaya’s close ally and fellow political leader Maria Kolesnikova was kidnapped by masked men in central Minsk, along with two other members of a coordination council set up by Tikhanovskaya to negotiate an end to the crisis with Lukashenko’s regime. “The regime is engaged in terror, there is no other name for it,” she said. A witness told the independent news site Tut.by that they saw Kolesnikova being shoved into a minibus and driven away.
After almost 24 hours of silence, Lukashenko told a pool of top Russian state media figures in Minsk on Tuesday that Kolesnikova had been detained while being driven to the Ukrainian border. At a televised press conference in Kyiv, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, Kolesnikova’s associates who were with her at the time, told reporters that she had torn up her passport and thrown it out of the car to prevent Belarusian authorities from deporting her. Kravtsov said that Kolesnikova then “climbed out of the car and walked bravely to Belarusian territory.” A Belarusian state border guard official told the media that the political leader was pushed from a speeding car by her two associates in the area between crossing points to thwart her deportation. Ukrainian border guards confirmed in a statement that Kolesnikova never entered Ukrainian territory but said that her two colleagues had.
At the time of publishing, virtually all of Belarus’s protest leaders were serving jail sentences, sitting in detention, or else living in forced exile abroad.
But while Lukashenko has threatened and jailed many leaders of the protests, and used his security forces to brutalize and detain thousands of demonstrators — many of whom have recounted horrific stories of abuse and torture — he has thus far failed to stamp out the movement against him. Instead, with each crackdown attempt, the protests have swelled and the solidarity among demonstrators demanding his resignation has grown stronger.
Tikhanovskaya said the moment marks Belarusians’ “politically awakening.” Although she said it was less politics that have jolted her fellow citizens into action and more Lukashenko’s mismanagement of the country. Belarusians are angry at him for a stagnant economy that has made Belarus one of the poorest countries in Europe and more recently for his failure to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Lukashenko called COVID-19 a “psychosis” and claimed wrongly that simply drinking vodka, playing ice hockey, going to the sauna, and even riding tractors — something he called “tractor therapy” — would keep the virus at bay.
In the meantime, Belarusians suffered and died and hospitals were left without much-needed personal protective equipment. In the state’s absence, civil society stepped in, something that Tikhanovskaya said marked a turning point.
“When ordinary people started organizing and collecting money for our doctors,” she said, is when people began to realize that new leadership was needed and that Belarusians could self-organize. She noted one defining moment, when her husband, Tikhanovsky, published an interview with a doctor who was critical of authorities’ COVID-19 response. “People around the country started to collect money for him. And in just one day they collected for him his year’s salary,” she said. “People then understood that they can work together.”
Speaking in slightly accented English, Tikhanovskaya said she never planned or expected to become a political figure. Born in Mikashevichi, a Belarusian town just 30 kilometers north of the border with Ukraine, Tikhanovskaya was one of many “Chernobyl children” whose health was affected by the radioactive fallout of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Pripyat and whom Irish families welcomed into their homes for some rest and recuperation. She spent several summers as a child with a couple in the central Irish town of Roscrea.
At least part of her worldview was shaped by the time, she said.
“My visits in Ireland were my first visits abroad. It was really a shock to see what level of life people had,” Tikhanovskaya said, recalling shops filled with aisles of products. But one thing that left a lasting impact, she said, was the politeness of people, which gave her a sense of what was possible.
“You just go out and people are smiling at each other… In shops people always said hello and thank you,” she recalled. “And in our country it wasn’t always normal to say thank you. People were always thinking about money or having something to eat.”
She described herself as still being “the shy girl” of her youth and said she doesn’t want power; she hopes only to help the Belarus transition to new leadership.
“What has to happen is new, honest elections. It’s our number one goal,” she said. “And after this, building a new country. And all people have to participate in building this new country. We don’t want that one person to have all the power over people.”
She sees Belarus’s new free-spoken and politically active generation as the antidote to Lukashenko’s Soviet-type system.
But Tikhanovskaya admitted that her movement might need some help. In video addresses last week, she asked the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and the UN Security Council for their support and to consider sanctions against officials responsible for rigging the presidential elections and committing what she said were “crimes against humanity” while dispersing protests.
She told BuzzFeed News that she had asked US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun earlier this month when they met in Vilnius to deliver the message to Washington that she would like the US to help mediate the crisis in Belarus. At the same time, however, she said she cautioned Biegun about the US becoming too deeply involved in it.
“I asked Mr. Biegun not to interfere in our internal affairs,” Tikhanovskaya said. “What’s going on now is an internal affair, it’s our political crisis. I don’t think it would be OK if any country in the world would interfere in our internal affairs.
“We asked this of other countries,” she continued, referring to Russia. “But I underlined in that meeting [with Biegun] that maybe if we aren’t able to [influence change] ourselves, maybe we will need some kind of mediation. So we would be grateful to the US, Russia, and other countries if they would like to help us on this question and would act as mediators in this difficult situation.”
Belarus experts have criticized the US for a lack of support for the pro-democracy protests. “The EU is playing the lead role as far as the Western response. The US is nowhere,” Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who served as the British ambassador to Belarus from 2007 to 2009, told BuzzFeed News last month.
Tikhanovskaya said that she was not overly concerned by what some perceived as a poor US response but she hoped Americans would keep an eye on events in Belarus and support the pro-democracy movement.
“I know you have presidential debates soon,” she said. “So maybe if the Belarusian issue will be raised during these presidential debates we would be rather grateful for this.”
On Monday, Reuters quoted three unnamed EU diplomats as saying the bloc will impose economic sanctions on 31 senior Belarusian officials, including Interior Minister Yury Karayeu, who is seen as being responsible for the brutal police crackdown on protesters, by the middle of this month. Last week Reuters quoted an unnamed US diplomat as saying Washington could consider sanctions if Russia intervened to help Lukashenko.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment. A senior US official told BuzzFeed News last month that career foreign service officers focused on Eastern Europe have been frustrated by what the official described as a lackluster response by the Trump administration.
There are some indications that Russia already has intervened. Lukashenko has repeatedly portrayed the protests against him as a NATO plot to oust him and called for the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has enjoyed a difficult relationship over the years. The Kremlin’s response was tepid at first. But after Belarusian journalists walked out of state-run TV news offices in protest of Lukashenko’s heavy-handed tactics against protesters, Putin sent journalists from RT, formerly Russia Today, to keep pro-Lukashenko propaganda on the airwaves. And on Tuesday, a group of top Russian media officials, including RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, arrived in Minsk for an interview with Lukashenko, in a clear sign of Moscow’s support.
Moreover, Lukashenko is expected to meet with Putin in Moscow in the coming days.
Lukashenko has also presented Tikhanovskaya and her allies as being anti-Russian and claimed she wants to see Russian eliminated as the state language, to be replaced with Belarusian. “I have heard about the program of this Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has supposedly made such statements,” she said. “It’s absolutely bullshit.”
In the interview with Russian media on Tuesday, Lukashenko conceded that he “may have stayed [in power] a little too long.” But, he continued, “only I can really protect Belarusians now.” And he addressed the images of himself toting the assault rifle while signaling to his opponents that he plans to stand his ground.
“My appearance with the gun meant one thing: that I had not fled and that I am ready to defend my country to the end,” he said.