‘I Believe That the U.S.A. Can Be the Crucial Player’

To oust Europe’s last dictator, Belarus’s opposition leader said her country needs the world to “be braver.”

Protest movements aren’t designed to last forever. And when they do reach their inevitable conclusion, they tend to follow one of two familiar sequences: In one scenario, a protest triggers the resignation of an opposed leader, the reversal of an unpopular policy, or other concessions (think of the successful recent revolutions in Algeria and Sudan). The alternative is that a protest fails—as a result of government repression, splintering within the movement, or a simple loss of momentum (recall the failed uprising against Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, the dormant “yellow vest” demonstrations in France, and the crumbling prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong).

In Belarus, things could still go either way. For months, the largest anti-government protest in Belarusian history has sought to oust the country’s longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko. At least four people have been killed in clashes with government security forces and more than 30,000 people have been arrested. Lukashenko, whose disputed claim to victory in the country’s August 9 election has made him an international pariah, has rejected calls to negotiate or hold fresh elections.

But Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya isn’t deterred. From exile in Lithuania, the self-styled leader of democratic Belarus has taken up the presidential mantle, meeting world leaders who greet her as Belarus’s sole legitimate representative. Between the protests and Tsikhanouskaya’s efforts, the prodemocracy movement has elevated the crisis in Belarus to the world stage—winning the solidarity of international capitals and, crucially, the attention and support of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

Lukashenko has demonstrated his staying power, for now, but while some might see his endurance as proof that Belarusians’ democratic aspirations are doomed to fail, Tsikhanouskaya isn’t so sure. The way she sees it, 2020 marked a tipping point: the year in which a rigged election, held against the backdrop of a mismanaged pandemic, finally pushed Belarusians over the edge.

“People will not be able to return to [their] previous life as if nothing has happened,” Tsikhanouskaya told me during a Zoom call from her office in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, where she lives with her two young children. “It just can’t happen.”

Even through the barrier of a laptop screen, how much Tsikhanouskaya has changed over just a few months is evident. In some of her earliest interviews, soon after Belarus’s tainted August election, she was introduced as the former English teacher and homemaker taking on Europe’s last dictator; the Tsikhanouskaya I spoke with had become something of a global icon—a leader who not only has come to personify her country’s democratic struggle, but also has been heralded internationally as one of the year’s most influential people. This Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya spoke with more confidence, more conviction, and more urgency.

“I really have changed; I understood that I am a rather strong person,” she said with a self-conscious chuckle. “I’ve never been put in such circumstances where I could realize that I am really strong inside.”

In Tsikhanouskaya’s telling, the fact that such circumstances have arisen is an accident of fate: After all, it was her husband, a businessman and popular YouTube blogger, who set out to claim the presidency, not her. Had he not been arrested before he could get the chance (Lukashenko has a track record of jailing his political opponents), and had Lukashenko not dismissed a woman as no real threat to his power, she might not have even considered a role in politics.

After registering her candidacy in July, Tsikhanouskaya joined forces with two other female opposition figures to become the public face of the movement against Lukashenko. The trio, led by Tsikhanouskaya, quickly attained rock star–like status, attracting tens of thousands of supporters to campaign rallies. When election day finally came, Lukashenko declared himself victorious with 80 percent of the vote—a result observers within and outside the country declared a sham. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out for peaceful demonstrations calling on him to step down, triggering a violent crackdown that involved mass detentions, beatings, and torture. While government forces went after the protesters, Lukashenko went after the opposition: Two of the three women, including Tsikhanouskaya, were essentially forced to leave the country, and the third was detained in Minsk, where she faces charges of undermining national security.

Tsikhanouskaya cited the government’s heavy-handed response as Lukashenko’s ultimate undoing—a “point of no return” at which Belarusians realized that “the regime doesn’t care about them.” It was a turning point for her, too: Until then, she said, she couldn’t bring herself to call Lukashenko a dictator. “I called him Mr. President or Mr. Lukashenko, to show that he is a person, he was president, he has to be respected,” she said. “With the escalation of the violence came the escalation of my inner anger.”

That anger, shared by many across the country, only invigorated the demonstrations. Like other largely leaderless movements, Belarus’s protest has owed much of its early success to its sophisticated use of technology, its inclusivity, and its unwavering momentum in the face of both a public-health crisis and excessive government force.

The sheer scale of the demonstrations brought the world’s attention to the former Soviet state, regarded as a crucial bulwark between Russia and NATO allies in Western Europe. But Tsikhanouskaya has long dismissed this perspective: Belarus’s prodemocracy movement is not akin to Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution, in which one side was for the European Union and the other against it, nor is it a geopolitical fight between East and West. Rather, she told me, it’s a “democratic revolution.”

Tsikhanouskaya walks in Warsaw with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, while being welcomed by dozens of Belarusians living in Poland. (Attila Husejnow / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty)

Tsikhanouskaya may argue that Belarus’s protest movement isn’t geopolitical, but it certainly has geopolitical ramifications, and other countries, both near and far, have significant interests in what happens to Lukashenko.

Because tools to apply pressure on him within the country are limited (a national strike, for example, had little success), Tsikhanouskaya has focused on applying pressure from the outside. Those efforts have led to some key wins: The United States, Britain, Canada, and the EU have not only refused to recognize the legitimacy of Lukashenko’s inauguration; they have imposed targeted sanctions against top Belarusian officials (which, in the case of the EU and Britain, include Lukashenko). Tsikhanouskaya has held high-profile meetings with world leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel. The International Olympic Committee announced a ban on Lukashenko’s attending any IOC events, including the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. More recently, nearly 100 European lawmakers called for the EU to establish a headquarters in exile for the Belarusian opposition.

If recent history is any indication, though, such solidarity can get you only so far. Widespread global support for the prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong has done little to prevent Beijing’s encroachment. Global recognition of the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president didn’t prevent Maduro from staying in power. If the Belarus prodemocracy movement hopes to win, it will need more than strong statements and symbolic gestures.

Tsikhanouskaya admitted that there was “a little disappointment” at the scale of the international response. “People in Belarus were sure that Europe and America and Canada would become one strong voice against Lukashenko, but it didn’t happen as we expected,” she said. During her acceptance of the European Parliament’s 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom and Thought last week, she told the bloc as much, noting that Belarus needs more than limited sanctions and symbolic gestures (including an office in exile, which Tsikhanouskaya told Politico would not be necessary, because “our fight is in Belarus”).

“They can be braver,” she told me. “They can be stronger. They can be more vocal. They can pay more attention to this problem, because we are not a country somewhere far away—we are here,” in Europe’s heartland.

Europe isn’t the power Tsikhanouskaya is pinning her hopes on, though—that’s the United States. Although Washington has condemned Lukashenko’s human-rights abuses and leveled sanctions against his allies, the response from Donald Trump’s White House has been rather muted—something his successor has already pledged to change.

“We’re really waiting for Biden,” Tsikhanouskaya said, adding that her primary requests will include further economic pressure (this time targeting Lukashenko’s business interests), financial assistance for Belarusian civil society, and support in investigating crimes against humanity in Belarus under the principle of universal jurisdiction (as is already being done by Lithuania).

Counting on the U.S. isn’t without risk. The past four years have seen the country take a step back from its traditional role of defending liberal values and human rights. With a worsening public-health crisis dominating the attention of the incoming administration, who’s to say that the U.S. can be regarded as a reliable defender of democracy abroad? “I believe that the U.S.A. can be the crucial player in this fight,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “Everybody realizes the strength and greatness of the U.S.A. and the role it plays in the world arena.”

Still, American support is a means to an end—not the end itself. When I asked Tsikhanouskaya what she thinks the end should look like, she told me that the ultimate goal was new elections. How they come about depends, in large part, on Lukashenko. “From the beginning, we underlined that we don’t want to grab this power,” she said. “We just need dialogue. We are civilized people. It’s so easy to sit and talk.”

Though Lukashenko has so far rebuffed offers to meet with opposition leaders, he has signaled that he recognizes his time in office may soon come to an end. In addition to meeting with a number of his jailed political challengers, Lukashenko suggested that he would be open to pursuing constitutional reforms—ones that he confirmed would involve his no longer serving as president. Such changes would likely take time, though, and Lukashenko hasn’t provided a timetable for his departure, to say nothing of the similar pledges he’s made before.

Tsikhanouskaya isn’t under any illusions that Lukashenko is sincere. Yet she sees getting him on board as crucial: Being forced out of office after more than a quarter century at the nation’s helm would be “humiliating for him.” The easiest option is to find a solution that allows him to save face. “We understand this type of person, so that’s why we wanted this to be civilized,” Tsikhanouskaya said, even if that means framing the outcome “as if it is his wish.”

This way of thinking demonstrates Tsikhanouskaya’s pragmatism, but it also reveals something more fundamental about her leadership style: She does not crave power, nor does she appear to care for the limelight, or aspire to a political career.

“It’s rather difficult to bear all this, but I have to—I have no choice,” she said, the historical red-and-white Belarusian flag, which, like her, has become a symbol of the prodemocracy movement, visible over her shoulder on my laptop screen. “And every day, I have to look for strength in the Belarusian people, in my children, in the fact that there are so many people who are detained and tortured in jails.”

It’s clear from speaking with Tsikhanouskaya that she doesn’t begrudge this responsibility. But she doesn’t see herself as entitled to it either. Throughout our conversation, she stressed that although the past several months have been difficult for her and her family (her husband remains in Belarusian prison), her experience is nothing compared with the dangers facing her fellow Belarusians back home. In Lithuania, at least, she is safe.

“You don’t have the right to step away,” she added, as though to remind herself. “You don’t have the right to be stressed … You don’t have the right to think for a moment that you are weak, that you cannot bear this. You have to move on.”

On the whole, 2020 hasn’t been a great year for protest movements. While demonstrators around the world have shown an incredible ability to adapt their mobilization to an era of social distancing, their innovations haven’t completely insulated them from the difficulties of sustaining momentum amid a global public-health crisis. Indeed, many governments have used the pandemic as a cover to quash dissent—the most prominent example being the Chinese government’s efforts to quell the once vibrant prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong, which Beijing has all but snuffed out.

What, then, of Belarus? With its political leaders forced to operate outside the country, and with Belarusians facing heavy-handed crackdowns within it, how long can this last?

A September survey by the London-based think tank Chatham House found that although the opposition remains popular among protesters, a majority of Belarusians don’t necessarily trust it to represent the interests of Belarusian society. Ryhor Astapenia, the author of the Chatham House survey and the Warsaw-based research director at the Centre for New Ideas, a Belarusian think tank, told me that part of the challenge comes down to the fact that, beyond the promise of fresh elections, no alternative vision for Belarus is on offer. While Tsikhanouskaya serves as a symbol, “we still need a politician who will say publicly that he or she has a vision for the country,” Astapenia said. “At the same time, it’s very difficult to imagine a leader to appear inside the country right now because … they would be imprisoned very quickly.”

For years, Lukashenko’s rule has been predicated on presidential contests that were never really contests at all. His loss of legitimacy at home and abroad means the only certain outcome for the country, as Tsikhanouskaya told me, is that life in Belarus cannot return to what it was before the election. The scale of the protests, paired with the brutality of the government’s response, all but ensures that at least.

This doesn’t make the prodemocracy movement’s success a given. Even the most promising campaigns have faltered as a result of fatigue, division, and fickle media attention. “I understand,” Tsikhanouskaya said, “that while we are in the news—while you are talking about us and writing about us—we exist.”