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Opposition leader from Belarus gets U.S. help standing up a government in exile

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We had a visitor in our studios yesterday, a woman exiled from her home country. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is an opposition leader from Belarus who says she was rightfully elected president in 2020. Now, if you look on the map, you'll see Belarus in Eastern Europe. It's right next to Ukraine and also right next to Russia, which once ruled it directly and still exercises great influence through its leader, Alexander Lukashenko. Russian troops even used Belarus as a launching point for part of their invasion of Ukraine.

Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader, says Lukashenko should not be in charge at all. Her husband was an opposition leader until the government jailed him, so she ran for president instead, only to have the government say she lost big and force her to flee to Lithuania. She's now been standing up a government in exile, complete with a cabinet, and she came here to Washington to confer with allies in the U.S. government.

SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So we have two-side strategy towards Belarus. We need political isolation of Lukashenko's regime and closing loopholes in existing sanctions and more economic sanctions on this regime. But on the other hand, we need more assistance to democratic society, to democratic movement, to our media who have to counter propaganda. And we are not asking you now to fight instead of us. We just need constant communication with the U.S.A. It's the most important strategic ally to Belarus. But also what's important is the future of our country.

Of course, we realize that future of Belarus and Ukraine are connected because we are facing the same enemy. But if in Ukraine Russia is fighting with tanks and missiles, in Belarus they are interfering in Belarusian life, in economy, in education, in military sphere, in media, so on and so forth. So it's like silent war at the moment. But we have to be sure that after - I don't know - negotiations about Russian-Ukrainian war starts, Belarus will not be abandoned, Belarus will not be given as consolation prize.

INSKEEP: OK, you also mentioned strengthening democratic movements, things like a free press. Do you hope to spur protests or an uprising within Belarus itself?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Of course. You know, the task to return Belarus to people and to hold free and fair elections, it's own Belarusian people, for sure. And when the new window of opportunity comes to Belarus, believe me, millions of people will be again on the streets. Now it's impossible. Of course, I believe that people want to see beautiful rallies on the streets, you know, it means uprising is there. But when you realize that every day in Belarus, 15, 20 people are being detained every day without any exceptions, you know, you understand the level of repression. We live like in Stalin's time and we have to keep people safe. When will be the next trigger for people to be united in the streets again?

INSKEEP: You don't want people to come out and protest at a time when they would fail and simply be arrested or killed.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: So you are in the process, it seems, of standing up a government in exile. You have a cabinet, is that right?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And now you want to put out passports in the name of that government?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah, yeah. But it's like we are overcoming challenges that are ahead of us. You know, we didn't think about this passport until Lukashenko decided to put revenge on those whom he can't reach because they live in exile. He wanted to, like, restrict our rights even there, so it just challenge. But of course, we are building democratic institutions in exile. We have proto-government, we have proto-parliament because we have to study democracy. Yes, in exile at the moment. We have to explain people how democracy works, that you don't have to rely on one person who tells you how to live and what to do. You have to take responsibility yourselves. It's much more difficult.

INSKEEP: Have you heard from your husband lately?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know, there was a tendency in Belsen regime prisons to keep people in incommunicado mode. Incommunicado is a type of torturing, and my husband is kept in incommunicado mode. Since March this year, I haven't heard anything about him. He was detained back in May 2020, but from March I don't know if he is alive. And it is done first of all to break people inside prisons, you know, to persuade them that persons forgot about them. Look, lawyers are not coming, nobody write letters to you, so you sacrificed in vain, you know, and just to break psychologically, because it's a huge burden on shoulders of relatives, of course. It's so exhausting when you don't know what's going on with your beloved. But, you know, I hope that they know that we continue to fight.

INSKEEP: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Thank you so much.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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