9 August 2022, 10:00am
On this day in 2020, Belarus held presidential elections. Standing against the dictatorial incumbent of 26 years Alexandr Lukashenko was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. An unlikely candidate, English teacher Tsikhanouskaya decided to stand for election in place of her vlogger husband Siarhei, who was arrested and subsequently jailed for 18 years after the authorities refused to register his own candidacy for the contest.
Dismissed as a threat by Lukashenka on account of being a ‘housewife’, Tsikhanouskaya was permitted to run. Hugely underestimated, her rallies attracted tens of thousands of supporters, making them the largest in Belarus’s post-Soviet history. Despite unofficial polling indicating Tsikhanouskaya had won with as much as 60 per cent of the vote, Lukashenko proclaimed himself president for a sixth term. Protests that would go on to last over six months began that same day, Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown with Vladimir Putin’s support and Tsikhanouskaya briefly went into hiding.
Two years on, Tsikhanouskaya lives in exile in Lithuania with her two children. She has spent much of that time touring, gathering support for the democratic Belarusian cause from leaders the world over. I spoke to her ahead of the election’s anniversary.
Despite her political baptism of fire, and successful following as the leader of Belarus’s democratic movement, her humility is striking: ‘I don’t think that, over the last two years, I have become a real, tough politician and I don’t think anyone expects that of me.’ Nevertheless, she acknowledged the hope many Belarusians, both within the country and abroad, have pinned on her; finding herself in a position she never foresaw, she is determined to use it for good.
As long as Putin remains in power, neither Belarus nor Ukraine stands a fair chance at democracy
The road to democracy is a difficult one – this is something Tsikhanouskaya recognises. Together with members of Belarus’s security services who joined her cause, she is spearheading the ‘Peramoga plan’ – a civil coup that will be triggered at an unspecified moment to overthrow Lukashenko’s regime once and for all. Thousands of Belarusians have reportedly already signed up, registering their willingness and skillset through an anonymous chatbot. When the time comes, each volunteer will receive a text message with tailored instructions; no individual volunteer will know the full extent of the plan for security purposes.
‘Our task is to exhaust the regime before the regime exhausts us,’ Tsikhanouskaya said. ‘I think over the past two years we have shown that we can do this.’ When Lukashenko is overthrown, he will be held accountable for his actions, but crucially in a legal way: ‘Everyone must be equal in the eyes of the law – even criminals like Lukashenko’s regime.’
With the gift of hindsight, it is clear that Putin’s decision to prop up Lukashenko’s rule in Belarus was the first step in his plan to bring ex-Soviet states back into the Russian sphere of influence. The invasion of Ukraine came next, thus intertwining its fate with that of Belarus. To Tsikhanouskaya, the link is clear: as long as Putin remains in power, neither country stands a fair chance at democracy.
From the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Tsikhanouskaya has been a vocal supporter of the Ukrainian cause. Speculation has continued to linger that Putin might call in Lukashenko’s debt and actively involve Belarus in the fighting – it has already covertly aided the ‘special operation’, allowing troops and rockets to be launched into Ukraine from its territory. This is something Tsikhanouskaya is adamant should not be ignored: ‘We have to understand that Lukashenko has already involved Belarus in this war and although, yes, our armed forces have yet to enter, that doesn’t mean anything. [It was started] from our territory, with Lukashenko’s permission. Therefore you can’t say that Belarus hasn’t entered the war in Ukraine.’
She is keen to stress that the regime’s involvement in Ukraine does not reflect the will of ordinary Belarusians. Polling conducted by Chatham House in June suggests that as few as 4 per cent of Belarusians support the idea of Belarus actively going to war with Ukraine. While the Kremlin is bending Lukashenko to their will, Tsikhanouskaya argues, in complying, he is taking a calculated risk: ‘It is difficult for Lukashenko to sell [the idea of war with Ukraine] to the Belarusian public, but he understands that the larger threat to him comes from the Kremlin. However much he says the collective West is trying to destroy Belarus, he knows this isn’t the case. But for the Kremlin to cross red lines is very easy to do.’
Since before the election of 2020, Lukashenko has worked to portray himself as the stability candidate. With Belarus state media parroting Kremlin lines about ‘denazifying’ Ukraine, the regime has sowed fear and distrust, holding up Zelensky as an example of what could happen were Lukashenko to be unseated. This, Tsikhanouskaya says, is more propaganda. The notion that Lukashenko is all that stands between Belarus and a bloody fate like Ukraine’s is wrong. ‘Belarusians are not scared of a change in regime. They are scared that this regime will be around for a long time.’
She does, however, acknowledge that there will be those who are scared of the unknown change could bring. The solution to this is to show Belarusians what the country could look like without Lukashenko at the helm. But what does that, in fact, look like?
From the beginning of Tsikhanouskaya’s election campaign, the message has been consistent: corruption must be rooted out, political prisoners freed and democratic reforms to the economy and political system brought in. Unlike Ukraine, where, even before February’s invasion, the desire to join the European Union was strong, Belarusians are not as bothered – cooperation with Russia is not something Tsikhanouskaya has ruled out.
Hearing Tsikhanouskaya speak, you catch glimpses of what has spurred her on over the past two years. Ultimately, it is not a quest for power, or control, but freedom: ‘The most important thing is that Lukashenko’s regime has time to wait and can conduct this sort of politics, but we don’t have that time – each day for us is another day of our loved ones being imprisoned, it’s another day that people cannot return to Belarus, so our time flows differently.’
With Europe engulfed in an energy and cost-of-living crisis as it weans itself off Russian gas, the prospect of news fatigue as the war in Ukraine rumbles on is a realistic possibility. ‘It will be difficult – it will be a cold winter. But we must remind people in the West why this is being done: it’s not being done to harm them, but to show that strong countries can support those who are currently experiencing horrifying things. Right now Ukraine and Belarus need that support.’
Tsikhanouskaya added: ‘Belarus is also a part of Europe. It is important to convey to our Western allies that Belarus cannot be forgotten about in relation to Russia and Ukraine, and that the regime and the people are two different things. We need solidarity, and to know that we are not fighting this enemy alone.’
WRITTEN BY Lisa Haseldine
Lisa Haseldine is The Spectator’s assistant online editor
Let us all hope that Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya will soon be sitting in the presidential office in Minsk, and loony Luka and the rat either in prison or dead.
Re the comment piece by Senol Agac about AmneZty, I have been encouraged to find plenty of German professionals on LinkedIn who strongly support Ukraine. Indeed Mr Agac thinks that most of his countrymen do in fact support Ukraine. I don’t know if it’s true or not; I guess we will find out soon enough.
Personally, I think that this is true.