The Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya will meet Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday, as the standoff in Belarus increasingly takes on a geopolitical dimension, becoming one more bone of contention between Russia and the west.
Tikhanovskaya said she will ask the German chancellor about “her potential participation as a mediator” in talks between protest leaders and the government of the embattled autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, who has been backed by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and has flatly refused to participate in negotiations.
“We will discuss ways to put pressure on Belarus, because Belarusians think that only with pressure can we force the authorities into dialogue with the people,” said Tikhanovskaya in a Skype interview from her office in Vilnius. She has been based in the Lithuanian capital since she was forced to flee Belarus after being threatened in a conversation with officials the night after the disputed 9 August election, which saw Lukashenko win a sixth term.
Who is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya?
Born in 1982 in Mikashevichy, Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya rose to prominence as an opposition leader to Alexander Lukashenko, after her husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a popular YouTuber, was arrested while preparing to stand for election.
After she announced her intention to run in his place, Belarusian authorities thought they could safely leave Tikhanovskaya on the 2020 election ballot to provide a window dressing of democratic competition. Instead, Tikhanovskaya emerged as a formidable opponent, describing herself not as a leader, but a symbol, and promising swift new elections if she attained power.
One of the “Chernobyl children” hosted in Ireland to help them recuperate from the effects of the nuclear accident in neighbouring Ukraine, as an opposition figure she drew crowds of thousands even in small cities, where people sang along to Changes, the 1987 song by the Soviet rock band Kino that became the soundtrack of a previous generation of people demanding a new kind of politics.
Tikhanovskaya had sent her children out of Belarus during the campaign after she said she had received threats, and then in a video published days after she rejected the official result of the disputed election, a visibly distressed Tikhanovskaya indicated she had faced an ultimatum involving her family. She was forced to flee to neighbouring Lithuania. “God forbid you face the kind of choice that I faced,” she said. “Children are the most important thing in our lives.”
The EU has answered Tikhanovskaya’s call not to recognise the 2020 elections.
“The Belarusian people already consider Lukashenko to be illegitimate,” she said. “When we say negotiations with the government, we are talking about people lower down; some people should take responsibility and start these negotiations to find a way out of the crisis.”
Tikhanovskaya, who officially received only 10% of the vote in the election, has declared herself national leader, and wants to be a transitional figure until new, free elections can be held. For the past two months, huge protests have rocked Belarusian cities every weekend, with authorities responding with arrests, violence and threats. On Sunday, police again detained protesters in Minsk.
Tikhanovskaya has increasingly received support from western politicians, meeting the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in Vilnius last week and Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, before that. After visiting Berlin, she will travel to Bratislava to take part in an international conference.
Tikhanovskaya and other protest leaders have been keen to emphasise from the beginning that theirs is not an anti-Russian or pro-EU movement, and has no geopolitical agenda. But as Lukashenko clings on, relying on the support of Russia, his claims that the opposition want to pull Belarus away from Russia may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the first two weeks of the protest, the Kremlin appeared to be sitting back and weighing its options, but soon after there was a shift in tone in official statements and on Russian state television, calling Lukashenko the legitimate president and suggesting the protesters had backing from abroad.
As Tikhanovskaya meets Macron and Merkel, Lukashenko has travelled to Sochi to meet Putin, and received a number of Russian regional governors in Minsk, who have showered his regime with praise. The Kremlin has dismissed the opposition coordination council as unconstitutional, and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, described Tikhanovskaya’s meeting with Macron as “a meeting between the French president and a Belarusian citizen”.
Tikhanovskaya said she and her team had received no contact at all from Russian officials, even informally or through intermediaries. She conceded that perhaps the opposition should have tried harder to speak with Russian representatives in the early stages of the protest movement. “We were open to talk to everyone and said it many times, but maybe we should have taken some steps to proactively seek out this dialogue,” she said.
Tikhanovskaya said the Kremlin should realise that betting on Lukashenko is bad policy. “They are experienced politicians, and I’m sure they can see that Belarusians can’t accept these current authorities, and cannot forgive them,” she said.
Asked what she would say if Putin did call her, Tikhanovskaya said: “I would say I’m pleased to hear from you, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Let’s discuss the fact that the Belarusian people in their own country want to make decisions about with whom they want to build the country, and the Belarusian people can no longer live under dictatorship, because we have changed.”
Where are they now? The Belarusian women who opposed Lukashenko
Initially a stand-in for her husband, a popular blogger barred from running and jailed by the authorities, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became the main opposition candidate to the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, as part of an all-female opposition campaign spearheaded by herself, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo.
She fled to neighbouring Lithuania in early August, from where she posted a video indicating she had faced an ultimatum involving her family.
In September, in a video appearance before the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, she vowed that the country’s movement for democratic change would not give up, even in the face of continued intimidation and violence from Lukashenko’s regime.
A former Microsoft employee, she was the campaign head for her husband Valery Tsepkalo before he was forced to flee with the couple’s children to Moscow before the election. Having campaigned alongside Tikhanovskaya and Kolesnikova, she joined him there on the day of the election.
Apart from a one-day stopover in Belarus, when she says she was threatened with jail, she has remained in exile in Moscow. She told a radio interviewer in early August “I think I can do more being in Moscow, being free, and being able to speak up for Belarus’ people to the international community.”
Kolesnikova had been head of the presidential campaign for another opposition politician, Viktor Babariko, also barred from the elections and jailed by the government. She was the only one of the three women to remain in Belarus in the aftermath of the disputed August election.
On 7 September, it was reported she was abducted by unidentified masked men from the street in the capital, Minsk. Kolesnikova’s press aide, Anton Rodnenkov, confirmed her abduction to the media, then reportedly vanished himself about 40 minutes later. According to a Ukrainian minister, Kolesnikova then ripped up her passport at the Belarus-Ukraine border in order to frustrate attempts to deport her. She is currently being held in Minsk.
She had announced on 31 August she was forming a new political party, Together.
She said she would also ask Putin to act as a mediator, but said if the Kremlin asked for a guarantee that a new government would not exit the Union State, the current alliance between Moscow and Minsk, she would not be able to give it, words that are likely to alarm the Kremlin.
“I won’t talk for the future president of Belarus … if the majority will want to build closer relations with one or another country, it’s the will of the people, and the president will do what the people want.”
Tikhanovskaya, a 38-year-old former English teacher, had no political experience before this summer, when she became a last-minute presidential candidate. Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTube blogger, had planned to stand in the August election, but was jailed, along with another would-be candidate, banker Viktor Babariko.
Tikhanovskaya said she would run in place of her husband, and was allowed on to the ballot, apparently because Lukashenko believed a woman would pose no threat. However, a growing protest mood coalesced around her, and led to fury when the official results were announced. Tikhanovskaya said she still has no ambitions to be president in the long term, only to act as a transition figure, and said she was getting used to her new role in international diplomacy.
“I wasn’t prepared for such high-level talks, I would have needed a lot of time to prepare, but life has pushed me into them, and I think I am coping with it well,” she said.