Svetlana Tikhanovskaja, the woman who has undermined the dictatorship in Belarus

You registered as a candidate for the presidential election in Belarus on May 15, 2020. It has been a very stressful year. How did you manage to resist?

For me, the count does not start from May 15, but from April 29, when Sergey was imprisoned (Sergey Tikhanovsky, Svetlana’s husband, was arrested on April 29, 2020, ed.). I don’t even remember when I presented the documents: everything was in the fog. Difficult to answer. I fall asleep quickly because the days are very hard and I feel emotionally drained. I fall asleep, but as soon as I wake up, I immediately return to my thoughts about political prisoners. And so every minute I am with them – I drink coffee, and think about what Sergey is doing now; I go somewhere and again I think what he is doing. And when I say Sergey, I mean all political prisoners. I have these thoughts in my head all the time; I get tired with this, but I can’t do otherwise. There is like a red thread that binds all my days.

Do thoughts about Sergey and all the political prisoners in difficult and alarming conditions give courage?

Sergey is the closest person to me and I think about his pains, but all political prisoners are very important to me. Thinking of all of them, of the heroes who have sacrificed themselves helps me to continue the fight.

Is it exciting to meet the first officials of world politics?

Now I am no longer intimidated by meeting world politicians. But what is really scary are the cruel attacks of the Belorussa propaganda. This can be demoralizing. And meetings at the highest political level don’t bother me anymore, because I know what needs to be conveyed – the pain we’re experiencing, and that I’ve faced with all my fellow citizens, and so I know exactly what I’m talking about.

What are the next steps? What’s your plan, what are your strategies?

Our strategy is to start negotiations with the regime, knowing that this is the most civilized way. People in Belarus are ready to demonstrate again. But I understand that there may still be many victims in this way. These are tough decisions. I want to protect people and I want to get out quickly those who are already in prison. To organize these negotiations, we are trying to reach mediators, this is a very slow but civilized way.

Since it is very inconvenient for him, what can force Lukashenko to negotiate?

When I say negotiations with the regime, I don’t necessarily mean just Lukashenko. We understand that he will not sit at the negotiating table. I mean other representatives of the regime. Negotiations are the end point of the dialogue. First there is a dialogue at the expert level; at the level of representatives of civil society; then on a political level, a dialogue on how to overcome the crisis. The negotiations are the result of all these dialogues. Ultimately we want to achieve the goal of freeing political prisoners; organize new elections and organize the transit government for this period. This is a long process and, of course, I wish it were faster, also because my nervous system may not hold up for that long (laughs).

Do you think Lukashenko’s political system is united and monolithic? Or is there perhaps an internal split?

There is no monolith there, although they really want to create such an image through their propaganda. We have contacts in the structures of power – I, of course, cannot talk about it in more detail, but I can say that there is a terrible atmosphere there: people do not trust each other. There are security officials who are “tough”, but – as they say in Russian: you can’t comb everyone with the same comb. To say that they are not all the same, not even within the Lukashenko regime. As we say, the power structures in our country are like a mafia: it is easy to enter but it is impossible to exit. It is unfortunate for many to work there. There are many good people who cannot just leave, because they would be persecuted.

Is there the possibility of starting a dialogue with them?

We’re working on it. In the fall, we invited law enforcement employees to cooperate, urging them to join us. Now, on the contrary, there is no need to walk away from this system now – well, if you quit you will just be persecuted. Let’s say there is more need for them in the system. In fact, from within they have access to the internal moods and valuable information. And the same goes for the nomenclature. This is why we tell all of them to stay and help from within.

Do you think there will be a split in the elites?

The split already exists, but it cannot be emphasized, otherwise many will be subject to repression. We don’t need new victims. Let’s say: work where you can for New Belarus.

I saw that in early June you will speak at the Geneva Human Rights Forum. The program also includes Daria Navalnaya, daughter of Alexei Navalny (leader of the Russian opposition, ed). There are many parallels between your families: both the fact that you are leaders of the opposition in your countries and the fact that both husbands are in prison. Have you talked to the Navalny family?

No, we have never communicated, but actually I would like to speak with Yulia Navalnaya (wife of Alexei Navalny, ed), it would be very useful. I think two women will always understand each other, they will always find a common language.

When Sergey went to prison, you took on his political role: a huge responsibility. Usually people are engaged in politics by free choice, but you have been forced to do so. How did you deal with it?

(Sighs deeply) You know, I don’t think I’ve taken on the role of a politician, because I still don’t feel like a politician, even though I’ve been in the political environment for a year now. Maybe I was wrong, but due to my experience in Belarus, for me, if you are a politician, then you are authoritarian and you think about your own advantage, and not about the people. Now, when I meet European politicians, I understand that in democratic countries this is a bit different. Being a politician is a job. But I don’t think about my political career. I think about the people in Belarus. For me, being in politics is a way to help Belarusians. It seems to me that being a politician is not for me. But perhaps in a democratic country, I would have thought otherwise. Let’s say that for now I am IN politics, but I am not ONE politics. Everything comes from the heart, I do not have long pondered strategies in advance.

You still hadn’t talked to your son and daughter about dad’s situation last fall. Now you have talked to your son. What did you tell him?

My son is only 10 years old. But I found out that he already knew everything, even that Dad was in prison. She knew this because she was following Sergey’s YouTube channel. So we sat down and talked. And I asked: “What do you know about dad?”. He knew that Dad was in prison because he had fought against Lukashenko. I added: “You should know that Dad is a hero.”. And he himself told it to his younger sister. I had always told her the story that dad was in another country, so in the next story she replied: “But dad is in prison”, and carefree continued her games. For now, she doesn’t know what a prison is, and I don’t want to hurt her. And I give her gifts on Sergey’s behalf.

Was it difficult for you to tell your child the truth?

No. I don’t need to justify Sergey. Because dad is a hero to him. My son understands that dad is a hero who was imprisoned by the evil Lukashenko.

You haven’t been home for almost a year. Why can’t you come back? What happens if you come back?

Ever since we raised the issue of negotiations, the regime has declared me a terrorist. In Belarus, there is the death penalty for terrorists. For now, women are not subject to the death penalty, only men are. For women there is a life sentence. Therefore, the return to Belarus … (does not finish the sentence).

Do you happen to cry sometimes?

Rarely. I burst into tears and then move on. This gives me relief. I think I was more weepy before than she is now. This situation has tempered me.

Did European politicians do enough right after the elections for Belarus? Were they active and timely enough?

In truth, at first, I thought political trials were faster. See we’re in trouble, grab and do something, – what’s difficult here? – I thought. But now I understand that everything is complicated here too. Here too there is bureaucracy. Each step takes a million approvals. It seemed to us that everything was fast, but then it turned out that everything was long. Morally everyone supported us, and showed us solidarity. But the difference lies in the concrete actions. I was disappointed by the fact that the result of all European measures are only 80 people on the sanctions list, when however there are 35,000 people in prison: political prisoners of the Lukashenko regime. I am offended by this imbalance. Lithuania and Poland reacted very quickly, started to help and welcomed the victims.

Were these sanctions effective?

Sanctions are always effective. Sanctions are needed not to punish, but to prevent escalation. However, now, even without demonstrations, around 1000 people a month are being preventively arrested.

Source: L'Espresso – News, inchieste e approfondimenti Espresso by

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