Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who led a delegation of the Belarusian opposition to Washington, spoke to VOA’s Russian Service on Saturday about the democratic movement in her country and the war in Ukraine.
Tsikhanouskaya fled Belarus after facing President Alexander Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential elections that drew mass protests over allegations of electoral fraud. Lukashenko, who won a new term, has long denied the fraud allegations. Earlier this month, a court in Belarus sentenced Tsikhanouskaya to 15 years in prison after a trial in absentia on charges including conspiring to overthrow the government, the latest move in a monthslong effort by the Belarusian government to suppress dissent.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: Just over a year ago, the world was expressing support and solidarity with Belarussians who fought for their freedom. Now many people call Belarus a co-aggressor. How much does it complicate the lives of ordinary people and your life as a national leader?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: It took us a while after the beginning of the war [in Ukraine] to explain to the world that the Belarusian people and the Belarusian regime are two different things; that the Belarusian regime became an accomplice in this war, and all those who are responsible have to bear responsibility for this. The Belarusian people oppose this war, they are on the side of Ukraine, and it’s necessary to put as much political and economic pressure as possible on the regime.
Our nation, our people — despite the huge level of repression inside the country — try to support the Ukrainians as much as we can. We saw acts of sabotage of our partisans on railways, blowing up a Russian surveillance airplane, acts of disobedience, putting Ukrainian flags in Belarus. It all cost a lot. People are being detained every day in Belarus for their anti-regime and anti-war position. But participation of the regime in this war doesn’t make our nation a participant.
It is also very important to distinguish Belarusian people from Russians, because 86% of Belarusians are against the participation of Belarus in the war, and you will never see these “Z” or “V” signs [pro-Russia symbols] on our streets. We consider Ukrainians a close nation and we are facing actually the same enemy: the imperialistic ambitions of Russia. And we have to fight together.
VOA: You called [President Alexander] Lukashenko a puppet of Putin. How does it affect the future policies of Belarus? Is the very independence of the country at stake?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: We are fighting for freedom, sovereignty and independence of Belarus. Belarusian people have made their choice back in 2020. We are against the regime, and now after the beginning of the war, this geopolitical choice of Belarusians became evident. Belarusians feel themselves as part of the European family of countries.
Now Russia is connected with war and poverty; the West [with] peace and security. People want our beloved Belarus to be a prosperous, safe country, a good ally and partner for our neighbors. This is what we are fighting for. Belarusians don’t see their future with the imperialistic Russia. I think all the deals that are made between Lukashenko and Putin for these two years shouldn’t be recognized as legitimate and should be overlooked. So, there is no future of any democratic and free country with such Russia.
VOA: What is the possibility of Belarus entering full-scale war with Ukraine in the future?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: So, here again we must distinguish between the regime and Belarus as it is. The Belarusian regime has already become a full accomplice in this war. Lukashenko and his cronies have provided our territorial infrastructure to Russia, from which the Russian army can attack Ukraine. And they have to be made accountable for this. A special tribunal has to be opened against Lukashenko and all those who have been participating. Lukashenko has to be recognized as a sponsor of terrorism.
But Belarusian people, the Belarusian army are against this war. And if at the beginning of the war there were more chances for the Belarusian army to participate in the war because of the huge tension in the region, it has now become evident that Belarusian soldiers don’t want to fight with Ukrainians. They don’t want to kill or to be killed for Lukashenko and Putin.
So, I see this scenario of participation of the Belarusian army as minimal. But again, the Belarusian land can be used at any moment for launching missiles or attacking Ukraine again. It is Lukashenko who must bear responsibility for this.