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Belarusian opposition leader on Lukashenko’s dictatorship, underground protests, U.S. aid

It's been nearly a year since the man known as Europe's last dictator, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, was declared victor in an election widely-denounced as a fraud. The woman leading his opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is in Washington this week meeting with top U.S. officials. Amna Nawaz reports on her visit and speaks with her about her political plans and hopes for the future.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been nearly a year since the man known as Europe's last dictator, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, was declared the victor in an election widely denounced as a fraud.

    The woman leading the opposition to him is in Washington this week meeting with top officials.

    In a moment, we will have part of an interview that Amna Nawaz did this morning with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

    But, first, here's Amna with some background.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In August of last year, anti-government protests erupted across Belarus following what many Belarusians, and the international community call a stolen election.

    President Alexander Lukashenko's government quickly cracked down on protesters, journalists, and anyone else who spoke out against his regime. That included Belarusian opposition leader and presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to flee to Lithuania shortly after the election.

  • Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (through translator):

    I thought this whole campaign toughened me a lot and gave me so much strength that I can endure anything.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tikhanovskaya, who had previously been a teacher, then a full-time parent, with no political experience, picked up the mantle left behind by her husband, an opposition blogger.

    He was arrested in May of last year, a few months before the election, and remains in prison to this day. Widespread protests slowed last winter, but Lukashenko's crackdown remains in full effect. Nearly two months ago, the Belarusian government forced the landing of a commercial plane in the capital of Minsk to arrest 26-year-old Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich.

    Protasevich, who had openly criticized the government, was filmed shortly after his arrest recanting his comments.

  • Roman Protasevich (through translator):

    Hello. My name is Roman Protasevich. Police officers treat me properly and according to the law. Also, I now continue to cooperate with the investigation and give a confession on the fact of organizing mass protests in Minsk.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's widely believed he made the remarks under duress. Reports of torture of political prisoners by Belarusian authorities are widespread.

    Last week, in St. Petersburg, Lukashenko criticized his opposition while meeting with a key ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • Alexander Lukashenko (through translator):

    They turned to individual terror against those people who spoke frankly and who stood for the state. They try to push and to threaten. I think it's a question of time. And we will identify them all, we will find them all, and we will take them to justice.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    At least 32 Belarusian journalists remain in custody, according to the Belarusian Journalists Association.

    Over the weekend, Tikhanovskaya arrived in Washington, where she was greeted by supporters as she deplaned. She later addressed a crowd not far from the U.S. Capitol.

  • Svetlana Tikhanovskaya:

    It is a great achievement to be here and to receive support from the United States. But I ask you to remember that our path towards freedom is long and challenging.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tikhanovskaya has met with several top officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, all in an effort to ramp up pressure against Lukashenko's regime.

    This morning, I sat down with Tikhanovskaya at The Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

    I began by asking her if she ever thought, a year ago, she'd be where she is today.

  • Svetlana Tikhanovskaya:

    Oh, of course not.

    I have never been involved in politics, the same as the majority of Belarusians. You never — almost never believe that something could be done. But, last year, step by step, many actions preceded this uprooting of the Belarusian people.

    New faces started to appear in those, like my husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky. He started to go around the country asking ordinary people, who to lead. What would you like to change?

    And then COVID came, and people understood that they can do without this government. We — at the time when our doctors, medics needed help from government, it didn't help them. And people united to supply our doctors with facial masks, with special equipment for breathing.

    And people understood that this is (INAUDIBLE). This is — we — you can survive without the dictator. And people saw alternative.

    I brought my documents to the election commission only to support my husband. And I was sure that the election commission would deny to accept my documents, because they understood that I'm wife of Sergei. But they wanted to make laugh at me and just look, who will vote for a woman, for a housewife?

    But they lost the connection with the people in Belarus. They lost understanding that people woke up that they don't want to live under a dictatorship anymore.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Where is the movement today on the ground? Because we all remember last year hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, the brutal state crackdown in response.

    It's fair to say the protests have become much more muted since then. So, is the enthusiasm gone? Has Lukashenko won?

  • Svetlana Tikhanovskaya:

    No.

    Pictures disappeared, not protest, because, when with the help of violence and guns, regime succeeded to suppress people on the streets, of course, people went to fight on the underground level. People are continuing to fight, though we can't go out, so, basically, as it happened after the (INAUDIBLE) elections.

    So, they're trying to do very small step, but it is already step. But are nine millions This is already we will be nine million of steps. It's — don't think that, if you don't see those huge demonstrations, people lost intention for changes. Of course not. Protest is still going on. They are not evident.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yesterday, you met with U.S. Secretary of State Secretary Antony Blinken. You came out of that meeting, and you said that you understand there will be — quote, unquote — "strong actions" taken very soon.

    So, did you request additional sanctions?

  • Svetlana Tikhanovskaya:

    We — of course, we are talking about sanctions, because we understand that all the sanctions now and fight inside country and sanctions outside the country could influence the behavior of this regime and make them to stop repressions, release political prisoners, and start dialogue with civil society.

    And we talked about sectoral sanctions, because they are the most powerful. They would hit on the enterprises that (INAUDIBLE)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I have to ask you about his — the strength of this regime right now, because it is fair to say he still has the support of the security services, right, the military and the intelligence.

    It was just a few months ago he forced down a commercial plane to take off a blogger that he didn't like and detain him. And he has now cracked down brutally on independent media and journalists, as you mentioned earlier.

    Doesn't all of that say to you that he actually still enjoys a lot of support on the ground?

  • Svetlana Tikhanovskaya:

    He doesn't have a lot of support.

    He can influence the people through fear and blackmailing people. I think that the majority of people in the regime are, like, hooked by him, and a lot of people in the regime, especially on KGB, their hands are in blood already.

    And he's manipulating by these people. They feel like quite like one system. But usual workers in this regime, in the (INAUDIBLE) in ministries, they all say they want changes.

    You know how many times when people told us, when they were jailed by a policeman, and they feel these papers, and the policeman say, I'm supporting you, I'm with you, but I have to do my job.

    And people — the regime, people who are inside the regime, sometimes, they are even more slaves of this regime than usual people are. And they're more scared.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, thank you very much for being here.

  • Svetlana Tikhanovskaya:

    Thank you for the invitation.

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