The Irreversible Change in Belarus

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya discusses how the war in neighboring Ukraine is affecting her own people’s bid for freedom.

A photomontage of images of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus
Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty; The Atlantic

Every day, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the 40-year-old leader of Belarus’s exiled opposition, tries to rally her camp against the man who, as she says, is “proud of being called ‘the last dictator in Europe,’” Alexander Lukashenko. Every day, he seems to ratchet up his regime’s campaign of repression, which—overshadowed by the war in Ukraine—goes largely unnoticed elsewhere in Europe.

For Tsikhanouskaya, the democratic movement’s struggle is also personal. One of the political prisoners in Belarus is her husband, Sergei Tikanhovsky. Tsikhanouskaya herself became Lukashenko’s chief political adversary in the 2020 presidential election when she took over leadership of the opposition election campaign from her husband, following his arrest—which prodemocracy activists saw as simply a tactic to remove him from the race.

Lukashenko was reelected in August, but the result was contested amid widespread claims of election fraud. The mass protests that ensued resulted in deadly violence from state security forces and thousands of arrests and detentions. The European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus for the election fraud and the violence against demonstrators.

After a brief spell of detention, Tsikhanouskaya was escorted by Belarusian security forces over the border and into exile in Lithuania. She continues to live there, with her and Tikanhovsky’s two children. She herself was charged with terrorism offenses in a Belarusian court, so she has no possibility of returning as long as the Lukashenko regime—which has become only more dependent on President Vladimir Putin’s Russia for support—endures.

Because of his Russian alliance, Lukashenko is under severe pressure from Putin to play a more active part in Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. In recent weeks, military analysts have noted a buildup of forces in Belarus that might presage a renewed assault over the border into northern Ukraine.

Tsikhanouskaya, meanwhile, has become a sort of roving international ambassador for her country, working to raise the profile of Belarus’s fight for democracy and human rights, which is in many ways similar to that of its Ukrainian neighbor. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Anna Nemtsova: Both NATO and Ukraine predict renewed Russian attacks on Ukraine from Belarus. Will Belarus allow this? What are Minsk and Moscow trying to achieve?

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: We hear the same predictions. The Kremlin and Lukashenko are using each other, pursuing several goals: They want to hamper Ukraine and make Kyiv move its defenders from the east closer to Belarus, and they want to keep Belarusians themselves in a state of fear. It may be that though Putin is pushing Lukashenko, Lukashenko resists and does not want to send his own forces in.

Putin and Lukashenko otherwise are in the same boat; they have the same goal of holding on to power. But we know the mood in Belarus: People will not participate in Putin’s war—more than 86 percent of Belarusians are against it. And nobody wants to become enemies with Ukraine.

Nemtsova: Would the Russian military be able to mobilize Belarusian men?

Tsikhanouskaya: Possibly. There are some soldiers super loyal to the dictator who might serve in the Russian army. But a great majority of Belarusians do not want to participate in this war, and Lukashenko understands that too.

Nemtsova: What would another major Russian invasion from Belarus, like the one we saw in February 2022, mean for Lukashenko politically?

Tsikhanouskaya: He would incur grave political damage. At present, the opposition still negotiates with the regime to secure freedom for political prisoners, but if Lukashenko joined in with another offensive, that would cross the red line—nobody in the opposition would ever talk to him again. After such an attack, Belarusians would be seen as aggressors and, just as it has for Russians, that would mean a visa ban and other sanctions.

Nemtsova: How did the 2020 opposition movement and the political repression that followed change Belarusian identity?

Tsikhanouskaya: We are a nation now. We’ve realized that we’d been an appendix to Russia. Belarusians understand Russia’s imperial attitude, which sees no Ukraine, no Belarus, as independent states. But people understand that it’s hard to destroy the dictatorship that “Luka” built for years.

Nemtsova: How are the relations between Ukrainians and Belarusians?

Tsikhanouskaya: Belarusians do not want to be treated by the world as if they’re Russians. We have managed to change perceptions, and Ukrainians have mostly stopped equating Belarusians with Russians. One problem is that Ukraine does still worry about Belarusian agents working for Moscow. But Ukraine has popular support, and there are many Belarusian military volunteers serving in Ukraine. We believe that at least 17 Belarusians have been killed fighting for Ukraine, and many more have been captured as prisoners of war.

Nemtsova: Do you feel Belarus has been forgotten during the war in Ukraine?

Tsikhanouskaya: So much is hanging on Ukraine’s victory—for Belarus, for the region, for the world—so, of course, it is bound to be [at the] top of the international agenda. Unfortunately, all the attention has made it easier for Lukashenko to hide his crimes inside Belarus.

The police arrest innocent people every day, and lawyers have no access. After these arrests, the authorities post videos in which people confess to participating in the 2020 protests—as if that were a crime. This is a tool they use to terrify the population, to make people feel as if they’re already living in a Gulag. Officially, there are some 1,500 political prisoners, but we estimate the real number to be about 5,000, and that some 50,000 have had this treatment since 2020.

Nemtsova: Belarusian human-rights defenders from the Vesna group were among those who received the Nobel Peace Prize last year. How effective have they managed to be?

Tsikhanouskaya: In 2020, Vesna kept records of all the arrests, offered free legal aid, gave advice to relatives on how to contact prisoners, and pursued international action to hold those responsible for the repressions accountable. But the regime is deaf; it does not respond. So international bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations Human Rights Council turned out to be impotent. We feel disillusioned—especially with the UN. Where are they?

Nemtsova: How is your husband doing?

Tsikhanouskaya: Ever since Sergei’s arrest two and a half years ago, he has been held in solitary confinement—for the first four months in a punishment cell, in the very worst conditions. We have contact only through a lawyer. My own letters do not reach Sergei, but our children’s letters reach him, so he corresponds with our children.

Nemtsova: Is it a parallel process, the liberation of Belarus and Ukraine?

Tsikhanouskaya: Yes, the awakening has happened. We in Belarus are already different. Just as has happened in Ukraine, more and more people are speaking in the native language, not Russian. These small progressive steps are very important.

The changes in Ukraine happened earlier, starting in 2014, and we are very much learning from Ukraine. Unfortunately, their struggle led to war—not by the Ukrainians’ choice, but this is the only way for some nations.

Nemtsova: Many people are saying that even if Putin goes, things in Russia will be even harder—a new dictator will step up, a hardliner like the head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, or the head of Russia’s security council, Nikolai Patrushev—and that the war will not stop for years. Is that a scenario you fear could apply to Belarus as well?

Tsikhanouskaya: They can push us into prisons and try to terrify us with raids, but the change of mentality I’ve seen in Belarus cannot be reversed. They made us believe we needed a strong hand, a dictator to keep us all in line, as Stalin did. But when our youth began going abroad to study at Western universities, a new generation evolved. Now people realize that Belarus can be a wonderful country. A new optimism was born. There’s no going back.