The people who end up at the cusp of historic changes are often taken by surprise by the turn of events and could never have imagined becoming national leaders or playing an important role on the world stage.
This is true of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Before the tragic yet heroic events that unfolded during the 2020 revolution in Belarus, Tsikhanouskaya was far from an established political figure in her country.
That only made Tsikhanouskaya’s fateful transformation from “blogger’s wife” and housewife to Belarusian opposition leader more compelling. But she has had to pay a high price for it.
“I’m actually constantly experiencing this sense of dissonance. On the one hand, I can talk about my husband, who is the person I’m closest to [Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a video blogger, dissident and pro-democracy activist who was arrested two days after announcing his intention to stand in the 2020 presidential election in Belarus – ed.]. My kids ask me every day, ‘When will we get to see Daddy?’ And I still can’t tell them that Daddy’s been sent to prison for 18 years. But this is not just about my husband, because my life is also closely intertwined with all Belarusians who have been similarly imprisoned,” Tsikhanouskaya says, visibly embarrassed, when asked how her family is affected by the political struggle that began two years ago.
Over the course of these two years, the number of people whose lives are intertwined with Tsikhanouskaya’s has grown exponentially: officially, there are 1,350 political prisoners in Belarus.
“But you know, I’m not comfortable talking about my family now, in light of everything that’s going on in Ukraine, while people there are being killed. Sometimes I think: well, we’re fine, they’re only in prison. But it’s still painful, and you have to live with it every day,” Tsikhanouskaya added.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya recently wrote an open letter to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine. The letter stressed the need for dialogue between the Ukrainian government and the leaders of free Belarus. Ukrainska Pravda’s sources have said that Zelenskyy’s team has so far ignored the requests for a meeting made by members of Tsikhanouskaya’s team and that they are generally cautious about the Belarusian opposition leader.
“We are ready to work together with Ukraine. Because neither a free Belarus nor a free Europe are conceivable without a free Ukraine. But without a free Belarus, there can be no free Ukraine,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote in her letter.
In this interview with Ukrainska Pravda, Tsikhanouskaya discusses how Ukraine can maintain a connection with the people of Belarus, why Lukashenko is not representative of all Belarusians, the shame some Belarusians feel about their government helping Russia to kill Ukrainian people, and why President Zelenskyy has not responded to her letter.
aii photos: Facebook of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
“Belarus has become a co-aggressor, and all Belarusians are being tarred with the same brush”
– You recently published an open letter to Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Its main message was to call for future cooperation between the two countries. Why are you only offering support and cooperation now, in the eighth month of the full-scale war?
– I did in fact record another address to the people of Ukraine and to President Zelenskyy soon after the war started, in which we took a decisive position of support for Ukraine and stated the need to separate the Belarusian regime from the Belarusian people. We wanted to say we were fully on your side. We wanted to convey this both to the Ukrainian people and, crucially, to the government.
You know, I was also slightly shocked and really surprised that the [Ukrainian] attitude to Belarusians has shifted so much since the war began. Our world was the world of revolution, we were opposed to the regime, we wanted to overthrow this regime, and we thought that the people of Ukraine, our closest neighbours, were fully aware of what was going on.
But then the war started, and we realised that people in Ukraine know nothing about our struggle, about the thousands of people in prison, about the number of political prisoners growing daily. We had to help Ukraine rediscover Belarus and Belarusians. This has been very difficult, especially in light of the emotional tension and the fact that Belarus has become a co-aggressor in the eyes of Ukrainians. Belarusians were all tarred with the same brush straight away.
– Ukrainians actively supported Belarusians when the protests started in August 2020. I think the current reaction has been shaped by the near-total absence of protests against the war in Ukraine in Belarus. Only individual public figures or artists have expressed their support for Ukraine. Perhaps protests in Belarus might have been suppressed by the government, but why didn’t Belarusians living in other European cities protest?
– Our Belarusian diaspora has been actively supporting Ukraine. Belarusians have joined Ukrainians in mass protests in many cities.
As for Belarus, I think this is another misunderstanding; Ukrainians have not been following [events in Belarus]: the thousands of people in prison, the hundreds of thousands of people who left Belarus prior to the war. There was so much fear, because you might go to prison for 15-20 years for an anti-regime message.
You can’t say that there haven’t been any protests. It might have gone unnoticed, but thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest against the war in several Belarusian cities on 27 February. People knew the risk they were taking, they knew that they could go to prison for protesting, but they still did it, because it was important for them to show how they felt about the war.
Of course I would like to see larger-scale protests. But our experience over the past year and a half has been of people being sent to prison for many years for so much as hanging a Ukrainian flag on a building or commenting “No to war” or “Lukashenko is a war criminal” on social media. This limits people’s desire to openly protest.
And yet people do what they can. Often these are small contributions. I hope that our partisans were responsible for preventing the Russian forces from entering Ukraine in exactly the way they were hoping to; I hope this is one small contribution we have made. They [the Russian forces] were ordered to capture Kyiv in three days. I really hope that Belarusians helped prevent that.
And we know that people were prepared to take to the streets, but they’d just be thrown into prison, and what would happen then? It would be scorched earth, scorched Belarusian land.
What could we do to help Ukraine in this situation? We have no state right now. Our state has been occupied. The regime has become a co-aggressor, Putin’s collaborator, in this war. And yet Belarusians are helping Ukrainian refugees in every small way available to us. Many Belarusians have stayed in Ukraine to help there. Belarusian medics have been helping injured civilians and soldiers in Ukraine.
We should not underestimate the role of information, either. It is very difficult to break through the noise when both Belarusian and Russian propaganda peddle the narrative that Ukraine has been taken over by Nazis; what we have to do is to counter this onslaught of information and let Belarusians know what’s really happening. Meanwhile, our independent media outlets have been declared extremist, terrorist organisations, so it’s really difficult to get the message out. But we know how important this is. At the same time, we have to bear in mind what is happening to the people in Belarus who are being imprisoned, who are being beaten and assaulted in prisons. It’s a difficult task.
I’m in no way trying to imply that we are facing the same problem. Because what’s going on in Ukraine is completely beyond comprehension. But we do have the same enemy. And democratic society in Belarus and the Belarusian people are fighting not just against the regime, but also against the Russian occupation.
– If Belarus officially joins the war in Ukraine, will that be reason enough for people to take to the streets? Is that what Lukashenko is afraid of, did I get that right?
– You know, when people say “Belarus will not officially join the war,” I feel slightly taken aback. Because Lukashenko has officially entered the war.
If we’re talking about the Belarusian army, I think that there was a high probability that Belarusian forces would fight alongside Russia in February, when Lukashenko was just as certain as Putin and the Kremlin were that the supposed blitzkrieg would be successful.
But even then it was clear that there was no anti-Ukrainian attitude in the Belarusian army. Belarusian soldiers were not motivated to fight against Ukrainians.
Moreover, they knew full well that they lacked military experience and would be used as cannon fodder. Lukashenko picked up on these moods in the army. Right now it is highly unlikely that he could issue such an order. Though of course Lukashenko might do it under pressure.
But the fact that he is not officially, as you say, deploying troops in Ukraine does not mean that he wants to help Ukraine or wants to somehow protect Ukraine by not deploying Belarusian forces. He is only worried about his own position, about his ability to retain power. Because issuing the order [for Belarusian forces to enter the war in Ukraine] would be political suicide for him.
I am absolutely certain that Belarusians will not fight even if such an order is issued: they will flee, they will surrender immediately, as your Hochu Zhit (I Want To Live) campaign instructs. We are sharing this information among our military networks: “Surrender immediately, do not fight.”
You know, it’s important for Russia that Ukrainians hate Belarusians as much as they hate Russians. We are not your enemy. But of course there is a possibility that Russia will once again use Belarus as a platform for its military equipment. There are many theories surrounding this, for example that the Russians will wear Belarusian military uniforms to convince Ukrainians that Belarusians are fighting against them. Because Putin doesn’t want to be alone in this war.
We realise that they are making Ukraine into an external enemy in order to make Belarusians feel the same way about Ukrainians. Meanwhile, Lukashenko will take up a saviour role: Look, this is our ally, its troops are here to defend our territory. He has to somehow explain the presence of Russian troops on our territory.
So something like a covert mobilisation campaign is happening now: people are receiving call-up notices, but this is being done in a very secretive way; no one is talking about it on TV in order to prevent a wave of resistance in Belarus.
“We have neither an army nor weapons – how can we fight?”
– When protests took place in Belarus, one of the protest leaders said, “We want a peaceful protest, but we don’t want a Maidan.” [This is a reference to Ukraine’s 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity when the then-president Viktor Yanukovych deployed special forces in a violent attempt to disperse the protests, and to the protestors’ perseverance despite brutal attacks – ed.] My interpretation of this statement is that you wanted to avoid armed confrontations on the streets. Do you think it is possible to overthrow Lukashenko’s regime without direct confrontations?
– It was actually Lukashenko who was shouting on every corner, “Do you want a repeat of what happened in Ukraine? Do you want another Maidan?” People wanted to overthrow the government by force.
But if you recall the Maidan, it also started with peaceful protests. I’m sure you would have liked to have avoided bloodshed. But when the first hundred protestors were killed, this further motivated Ukrainians to keep going…
Your police forces eventually joined the protestors. We were calling on our riot police to side with the people of Belarus, too, but we were not entirely sure they would. Because the regime has spent the last 26 years building a power vertical [a top-down command structure] in such a way that the KGB and all these other security forces are directly subordinate to Lukashenko. They are not protecting the country, they are protecting one person. Belarusians in general are, I think, more patient, as you put it, more obedient and law-abiding.
We really did believe that we would be able to bring about a change of power peacefully. We have never had such mass protests in Belarus. So we thought victory was right there in front of us.
Looking back, I want to say that our people were not ready for such radical action at that time.
Of course, certain groups had always talked about the need for more radical interventions, but this wasn’t a widespread or popular idea.
– Is radicalisation possible now? The regime whose laws you are abiding by has brought you to the brink of a full-scale war. Our missiles might start hitting your military bases, and it would be totally justified from our side, because how long can we tolerate this for?
– Yes, I realise that if missiles are launched from the territory of Belarus again, Ukraine and Ukrainians will have the right to strike back.
That’s why our main goal is to prevent Belarusian forces from entering Ukraine.
We have now introduced a military defence office in our United Transition Cabinet; this doesn’t mean that we will wage war on Belarus and fight. We have neither an army nor weapons – how can we fight? We don’t have this option, especially given the fact that thousands of Russian soldiers are still in Belarus and are prepared to defend Lukashenko.
Many men have started to undergo military training through the programmes offered by our friendly neighbours. This creates stress for the Lukashenko regime; they understand full well what is going on.
The Peramoga (Victory) plan, which is now being drawn up by former officers of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies who left in 2020, is not about violence. It’s about blocking specific strategic facilities. But it’s also a message to our army, so that they know that if the order [to join Russian forces in fighting against Ukraine] is issued, they will have somewhere to go in Ukraine, an organisation to join, an opportunity to switch sides and fight against those who continue to support Lukashenko militarily.
That’s why it’s probably too early to talk about how everything might happen in Belarus. Our present task is to prepare for the moment when we perceive a weakness in Lukashenko’s regime. He is already weak, but the critical moment for us to act as a united force, on all fronts, has not yet arrived.
– In an interview with European Pravda a year ago, you said that Lukashenko’s regime could fall in spring. At the moment, we see that everything is getting even worse, Lukashenko has one foot in the war, and he is completely dependent on Putin. And as far as I understand, people in Belarus are intimidated, too, and there is no hope of any protest. Do you still believe Lukashenko’s regime will fall? And what does his regime actually rest on today?
– The regime rests on three pillars: money, the security forces, and Putin’s support.
This was what helped him cling on in 2020. And I am absolutely certain that once we sense this moment, we will see masses of people out on the streets and the Peramoga (Victory) Plan will kick in.
The military volunteers who are now fighting against Russian aggression in this war side by side with Ukrainians will play their part in it somehow as well. So the mass involvement of Belarusians cannot be ruled out.
But, you see, people in this country have kept their energy inside, despite being intimidated and frightened every day that their houses will be searched, they themselves will be made to lie face down on the ground, taken to prison, or blackmailed with their family or children. Lukashenko has not been able to turn this page of history or to draw people to him.
He is afraid of referendums, assemblies and local elections. This threatens him with a massive upsurge of people. That is why I believe in Belarusians; I see that this fire has not gone anywhere.
– So everyone is waiting for a window of opportunity?
– This is not called waiting for a window of opportunity. It’s called working in order to use the moment as effectively as possible.
“Belarusians also ask: Why do you never stand next to Zelenskyy, why isn’t there a single photo of you with him?”
– You addressed President Zelenskyy in your column. Has there been any contact from his side?
– If we are talking about the highest level, the President, then Ukraine treads very carefully when it comes to communicating with Belarusian democratic forces, as you are currently at war.
And one wrong step, as the President’s Office sees it, could provoke reckless steps from Lukashenko’s side. Nevertheless, the war will come to an end, and it will end with Ukraine’s victory. And now, Belarusians will believe that Ukraine is ready to keep on cooperating with Lukashenko, who is an aggressor as well, because it [Ukraine] is not establishing contacts with democratic Belarus.
– Ukraine has not recognised Lukashenko as a president since 2020.
– Then why not talk to Belarusians who see their future as pro-European and pro-democratic?
And Belarusians ask the same question: Why do you never stand next to Zelensky, why is there not a single photo [of you with him]? Well, this is not about the meeting itself, or a photo. It’s about what happens prior to this meeting.
We have established working contacts with the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) and Zelenskyy’s advisors; we have an office in Kyiv. This is also about building up a relationship of trust. Because I see one Ukrainian public channel promoting a narrative that “Tsikhanouskaya is from the FSB (the Russian Federal Security Service) and she once talked about ‘wise Putin’.”
This is all brewing: they are trying to portray democratic forces in a bad light, saying that they are not pro-Ukrainian enough, not pro-European enough.
But we have openly declared many times that we are on Ukraine’s side, that we want a democratic future, and let’s develop a relationship today, as we will have to live together anyway. It is also crucial for us to see that Putin will not succeed in pitting us against each other, that we are not enemies of each other. So, this is not about a photo, but about what is happening now in the understanding between two nations: Belarus and Ukraine.
– Regarding you, I asked both the President’s Office and members of parliament from the president’s faction why they don’t actually want to have a dialogue with Tsikhanouskaya and the new Belarus. Obviously, they have a problem with the stance you expressed on Crimea in 2020 when you said that Crimea is de jure Ukrainian, but de facto Russian. This is a sensitive topic for us which we cannot forgive anyone, even though you have stated numerous times since then that Crimea is Ukrainian.
– It’s so easy to point fingers at each other. I hear Belarusians who have lots of complaints as well.
When I see altercations in social media, whenever Belarusians and Ukrainians fight over anything, I realise this is the work of Russian propaganda. It is extremely important for them that we should fight and quarrel, and then everything will be great.
Now is not the time to sort things out. Now is the time to cooperate, because we have the same enemy. Our enemy is the Russian empire, and we have to get rid of its influence.
Do you think we are not hurt and ashamed that they [the Russians – ed.] attacked from the territory of Belarus? Of how many people have been killed because of rockets launched from Belarus? Of course we’re ashamed! And we understand that maybe we did not push hard enough, did not hold out till the end in 2020. We can say that there was not enough support. But that was our fault, too, and we feel guilty.
However, guilt itself will not take you very far. We have to learn how to communicate and share our pain. The main thing now is not to divide our nations, not to become enemies of each other. That is the most terrible thing that could happen, because Lukashenko would have a field day. Lukashenko realises that if he stays in power, it will mean complete isolation in Belarus. It will mean thousands of kilometres of constant fear.
I really do hope that the Ukrainians who have praised Lukashenko all these years, because they didn’t understand what was going on, won’t go back to the narrative of “Belarus has clean streets and delicious milk”.
– I’m actually from Volyn Oblast [which borders Belarus], and we have always had a trace of envy towards Belarus precisely because of its “clean streets and delicious milk”.
– And everyone gives the credit to Lukashenko. Not to Belarusians. It’s Lukashenko who does the milking and sweeps the streets.
– But now, people in Volyn Oblast have been expecting tanks to come over from Belarus and seeing drones and rockets flying over from there for months, so they no longer feel envy, only anger.
There will be contempt towards Russians for generations to come. But how can we save our relationship with Belarusians?
– I think the media and the narratives it spreads have a huge effect on public opinion.
The Russian and Belarusian propaganda machines spend a lot of money on driving a wedge between our nations. You need to try to understand Belarusians. I realise that this is very difficult at the moment, because when rockets are falling on your head, it is hard to answer the question, “Belarusians, why don’t you take to the streets?”
In order to do that, we need to look back years and understand how this dictatorship was formed in our country. To understand that Ukraine as a nation has taken a huge step forward compared to the Belarusians, whose national identity has been destroyed and humiliated. You had a breakthrough, I think, after 2014, and we have something to look up to.
Because what has already happened for you, is still only just emerging for us, so to speak. We have only just opened our eyes to how important national identity is.
And therefore, we need to patiently explain what has happened in Belarus, and why Belarusians are not able to come out in mass protests at the moment – to explain that Belarusians are on Ukraine’s side.
However, I understand when Western countries think that people are against something if there is a protest; if there is no protest, people are for it.
I believe that Ukrainians understand Belarusians better than that, that Ukrainians are not spreading those pathetic propaganda narratives about “Belarusians backing Lukashenko”, that they are pushovers, people who keep quiet.
We don’t have a lot of money behind us, we can’t provide you with HIMARS. But when Poland was collecting funds for Bayraktars, the biggest number of people who donated were Belarusians. We have very little money. People are chipping away small amounts from their salaries to help Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees. This is all we can do, but we do it from the heart.
– Tell us, do you have any contacts with the Kastus Kalinoŭski Regiment [a voluntary Belarusian regiment that officially became part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in March 2022 – ed.]? Are you in touch with them, with volunteers, or with people who are taking part in the war from the Belarusian side?
– Definitely. We have an office in Kyiv, and there is a permanent representative of the Kastus Kalinoŭski Regiment who deals with international matters there; we keep in touch.
We have a person whose name I cannot disclose, who is a link between the Kastus Kalinoŭski Regiment and other Belarusian formations and democratic forces. We are very proud of Belarusians who are fighting together with Ukrainians. They are our heroes, of course: I would say they stand for Belarusians in this war. And I have heard high praise for the bravery and courage of Belarusian volunteer soldiers.
And I welcome the fact that since we don’t have any training centres of our own, Belarusians have achieved permission to be trained by other countries. Because the demand for training is growing as more and more of our men realise they have to stand for Belarus through Ukraine.
– And how do you feel about the fact that some Ukrainian members of parliament, including some from the Servant of the People party, want to make political plans and talk about the future with the Kastus Kalinoŭski Regiment rather than with you?
They think the Belarusian military elite are the people who have the right to rebuild and talk about a new Belarus.
– First of all, I am very happy that contact with the “Kalinovtsi” [soldiers of the Kastus Kalinoŭski Regiment – ed.] is being built up, especially in the Verkhovna Rada. This is a sign that the Ukrainian government has a high regard for the contribution that Belarusian volunteer soldiers have made to the Ukrainians’ great victory over the aggressor. The volunteer soldiers who are now fighting in Ukraine should have the right and the opportunity to participate in building a new Belarus.
If any of them have political ambitions and political leaders are emerging, then of course Belarusians will have the right to elect their future government and future president. And if these contacts are easier at this stage for the Ukrainian side, we welcome that.
– Do you undertake systematic work with the current armed forces in Belarus? Are there opportunities to talk with people there and understand the real atmosphere in the army?
– In our situation, we need to be very creative, because Belarusian troops and soldiers are very isolated from the world. This is being done deliberately so that they won’t be influenced by “destructive elements”, as the regime puts it.
But yes, there are soldiers within the army, even high-ranking ones, who constantly share internal information – they tell us what’s happening and share some documents – and not only in the army, but also within the pro-regime elite.
Soldiers themselves send information on how this war with Ukraine is being portrayed and whether they are preparing for any combat action through Telegram channels – either Belaruski Hajun [an independent Belarusian military monitoring media outlet – ed.] or any other one they trust.
At the moment, everything is calm there, as if they [the Belarusian government – ed.] are saying, “Don’t worry, Belarus will not enter the war.” Lulling, reassuring. But of course, they [the soldiers – ed.] are all on their guard: they understand what is going on. They meet relatives who can tell them things. It is very hard to have a constant channel of information; this is very strictly monitored and suppressed.
Information is primarily conveyed through public statements. And our representative for defence, Valery Sakhashchik, is, I think, a great achievement of ours. [Sakhashchik is a Belarusian soldier and a member of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s United Transitional Cabinet – ed.]
Maybe soldiers and KGB agents did not go over to our side in 2020 because they had no guiding light, no one who talked their language.
Sakhashchik has great authority among soldiers. Clearly he’s a great asset to us. He receives a huge amount of information. Not everything can be shared, of course. But I would say that contacts have become more stable.
– Are you ready to come to Kyiv, and under what conditions could this happen?
– I am ready to come to Kyiv if the Kyiv side is ready to accept me.
– The Kyiv side being President Zelenskyy?
– The President’s Office.
– So you are not ready to come and just support Ukrainians?
– Look, I have a slightly more complicated situation. Our representatives can come, but you have to understand that I am under the protection of Lithuania. And in order for me to go to Kyiv, the Lithuanian side would have to provide me with security, because I have diplomatic status here. Until I have an official invitation from the Prime Minister or the President, they will just not be able to organise this visit.
That’s the position I am in. I can’t just go when I want to.
It doesn’t have to be a personal meeting with me. It could be a multi-party meeting, as part of a delegation – Polish, Lithuanian, or Estonian. I think our political allies would gladly do that. But there still has to be an official request.
– Thank you. We are not the President’s Office, but we do invite you to Kyiv.
– Glory to Ukraine!
– Long live Belarus!
Sevgil Musaieva and Roman Romaniuk, Ukrainska Pravda
Translation: Myroslava Zavadska and Olga Loza
Editing: Teresa Pearce