Sipping orange juice on the terrace of a Central Park restaurant, far from the home she was forced to leave behind in Minsk, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had a warning for President Joe Biden: If you can’t back my democratic movement with actions, autocrats around the world will take notice.
In a little over a year, Tikhanovskaya has gone from being a stay-at-home mother of two young children and a part-time English teacher to becoming the unlikely leader of the pro-democracy movement to unseat Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, the mustachioed man who has had an iron-fisted grip on power since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Belarusians’ yearlong fight for freedom, she said, represents the “world’s current struggle between autocracy and democracy.” That fight has been building in Europe for years, as authoritarian-leaning governments in Hungary and Poland have swept into power, for instance, and the US is still grappling with Trumpist forces working to undermine American democracy, challenging the results of last year’s election and facts surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
Tikhanovskaya has taken on folk hero status in Belarus. She represents the voice of millions, and some even refer to her as their own Joan of Arc, although she’s not very comfortable with the comparison. (The French hero was burned at the stake, after all.) On Instagram, she goes by “prezident.”
For the past year, she’s received a crash course in international politics, holding audiences with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and rubbing shoulders with dozens of other European leaders. When she spoke to BuzzFeed News in New York on Sunday, she had just wrapped up meetings with top US officials in Washington, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, where she urged them to back the Belarusian opposition’s campaign with strong economic sanctions on Lukashenko’s government. She said she was disappointed she didn’t see President Joe Biden at the White House.
Tikhanovskaya’s argument to those officials last week, she told BuzzFeed News, was that Belarus’s battle against autocracy mirrors that of the world’s fight against authoritarian creep — and that Washington has the power to turn the tide.
She hoped the message would resonate with Biden, who said in February that “America is back” following four years of Donald Trump’s “America first” policy that alienated allies and emboldened autocrats. Last month, Biden declared that the US was in a “contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century.”
Tikhanovskaya said this would be an opportunity for the US president to follow up his words with actions, which she hopes will be taken sooner rather than later, as hundreds of her fellow Belarusians languish in prison cells and endure abuse at the hands of the country’s notorious KGB security service.
She said it’s the thought of their suffering that keeps her from enjoying moments like those in Central Park.
“Sometimes I want to shoot a video showing this beautiful country. Look at these buildings!” she said, pointing to Manhattan's glass towers. “Then I think, I’m here enjoying this view and meanwhile people are behind bars.”
Tikhanovskaya, who would likely be the true, current president of Belarus if it weren’t for, as the State Department put it, “fraudulent” elections last August, is currently touring the US to drum up support for her opposition campaign. After visiting with members of the Belarusian diaspora and officials at the United Nations Monday and Tuesday, she'll fly to California to meet with tech companies in Silicon Valley.
Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat and current visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told BuzzFeed News by phone from Lviv, Ukraine, that Tikhanovskaya’s US visit is perhaps her most important foreign trip yet because of Washington’s power and influence. High-level meetings will send strong signals over the Atlantic, he said.
After hundreds of thousands of Belarusians spilled into the streets to protest the fraudulent election results last year, the opposition movement on the ground has fizzled, due in large part to a broad and intensifying crackdown by Lukashenko, who has the backing of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The movement has since been pushed underground and online, in encrypted messaging apps, and, as Tikhanovskaya said, is in dire need of a “spark.”
As part of those actions, Tikhanovskaya said that she asked US officials to impose sanctions on Belarusian companies with close ties to Lukashenko and his cronies, including those in the potash, oil, wood, and steel sectors. She hopes the measures will go beyond the sanctions already in place against Lukashenko’s government and “hurt” enough to force him to ultimately change his behavior. She also asked for more financial support for Belarusian groups fighting for change, especially those being targeted by Lukashenko’s regime.
On July 14, Belarusian authorities carried out what Human Rights Watch called “unprecedented raids and detentions” on civil society and human rights organizations, opposition groups, and media companies. But it was far from the first time Lukashenko’s regime targeted his opposition.
The dictator’s brutal tactics were on full display in May, when he faked a bomb plot and ordered a Ryanair plane traveling through Belarusian airspace to make an emergency landing in Minsk, where Roman Protasevich, a prominent Belarusian activist and media figure, was detained for his role in organizing last year’s massive anti-government protests.
But even before then, Lukashenko’s KGB and police forces had detained thousands of Belarusian protesters, politicians, artists, sports figures, and business leaders. Human rights groups and Belarusian activists have published photos and videos of people being physically tortured and enduring verbal and psychological abuse inside jails and police vans.
The United Nations said this month that more than 35,000 people have been arbitrarily detained, and the number of political prisoners tracked by human rights organization Viasna, which itself was recently raided by Belarusian security forces this month, currently stands at 581 people.
One of them is Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger who was arrested in spring 2020 while trying to register to be on the ballot for the presidential election. He has languished in a jail outside of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, ever since. Tikhanovskaya told BuzzFeed News that she’s only able to communicate with him through a lawyer and that her children haven’t seen their father since he was taken.
They now live together in exile in Lithuania after Tikhanovskaya was threatened with jail herself if she stayed in Minsk.
“I was told, ‘Your husband is in jail, you’re going to jail for 15 years also. We know where your children are and they will be put in an orphanage,’” Tikhanovskaya said, recalling the tense moments before she was forced to flee Belarus last August. She added: “I was told in horrible details how women are abused in jail.”
Tikhanovskaya said she wanted to meet with US officials face to face to better explain the severity of the situation and the horrors Belarusians are facing.
“They see words [in the media] and hear speeches, but they don’t understand what it means in reality” to live in Belarus today, she said. “Every moment [citizens] live in fear.”
Following her meetings in Washington, Tikhanovskaya said she wasn’t convinced that the US would step up to help — at least not in any meaningful way.
The White House released a statement following her meeting with Sullivan that said the US supports the people of Belarus and respects their courage and determination “in the struggle for democracy and human rights.” It also said Washington, together with partners and allies, will continue to hold the Lukashenko regime accountable for its actions, “including through the imposition of sanctions.” Statements from Blinken and Power echoed Sullivan’s messages, saying both supported Belarus’s democratic movement, demanding an end to Lukashenko’s crackdown, and new, fair presidential elections.
But Tikhanovskaya said she left the meetings feeling unsure, since she did not receive “concrete promises of action.”
She is still holding out hope for aid, including the sanctions she requested. If her year in politics has taught her anything, she said, it’s that governments work slowly.
In the meantime, she doesn’t plan on slowing down. “I can’t go home [to Belarus],” she said, adding, “How could I look into the eyes of those relatives of people who are in jail knowing I didn’t do everything I could?”