PRAGUE -- Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called for tougher Western sanctions to be imposed on the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, saying they are the only way to hurt the authoritarian ruler's regime.
Speaking at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague on June 8, the former English teacher turned politician said the world needs to understand the pain Belarusians are going through during the current political crisis "because when you feel it, you want to do more."
“We all understand that we can block the regime economically so that it won’t be possible to pay the police and the military,” Tsikhanouskaya said in an exclusive interview with Current Time, the Russian-language channel led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Fearing for her and her family's security, Tsikhanouskaya left Belarus for Lithuania a day after a presidential election on August 9 that supporters say she won. Protests erupted after a landslide victory was handed to the 66-year-old Lukashenka, who has ruled the country since 1994, amid charges of widespread voter fraud.
A subsequent crackdown by security officials on any dissent has seen tens of thousands of Belarusians detained. Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some of those detained.
In reaction to the situation, the European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have imposed sanctions on him and several senior Belarusian officials.
Calls have grown for even tougher measures to be adopted after Lukashenka last month scrambled a military jet to force a Ryanair passenger plane passing through its airspace to land in Minsk, where law enforcement immediately arrested social-media activist Raman Pratasevich.
UN independent human rights experts have called for the immediate release of Pratasevich amid what they described as a “black hole” for media freedoms in the country, according to a statement issued on June 7.
The European Union has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarus, applying asset freezes and visa bans on 88 individuals and seven entities, including Lukashenka himself. Even before the Ryanair incident, the bloc had been working on a fourth round of sanctions targeting more senior officials. Washington's response has largely mirrored that of Brussels.
Tsikhanouskaya expressed optimism that democratic change will come soon to her homeland, despite a ratcheting up of repressive measures by the Lukashenka government.
“Belarusians are fighting both inside Belarus and in the international arena. A lot of work is being done by the Belarusians themselves: underground, secretly. But people are so creative that they come up with new and new ways to shake up the regime,” Tsikhanouskaya said on the same day that Lukashenka signed into law amendments to the Criminal Code that further restrict civil rights and the free flow of information amid the crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement.
She also vowed to continue her efforts to keep Belarus in the international spotlight.
Tsikhanouskaya arrived in the Czech capital on June 6 on a four-day visit at the invitation of Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil.
On June 7, Tsikhanouskaya met with the Czech Senate and addressed a crowd of several hundred people in Old Town Square, thanking the Czech Republic and Belarusians living there for their support.
Earlier on June 8, Tsikhanouskaya met with Czech President Milos Zeman, who expressed his support and admiration for her bravery, wishing the Belarusian opposition leader “victory over Europe’s last dictator,” according to a tweet by the president’s spokesman.
Tsikhanouskaya told Current Time, the Russian-language channel led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, that the only way to end the current political turmoil in Belarus would be through a “national dialogue between civil society and the regime.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pushing Lukashenka in recent years to take steps toward the integration of their economies in order to cement a 20-year-old agreement to form a union state.
Lukashenka has rebuffed the pressure, but the unprecedented street protests and subsequent Western sanctions have weakened his negotiating position with the Russian president.
Tsikhanouskaya said that while Russia, which has backed Lukashenka through the crisis, could play a “constructive role” as a mediator, any solution must be left for Belarusians to decide.
“But again, what is happening in Belarus is an internal issue. This is a struggle against the regime; this is not about geopolitics. But the regime is becoming a problem for the Kremlin as well,” Tsikhanouskaya said, adding she and the opposition have had “no official contacts” from Moscow.
In a separate interview on the same day with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Tsikhanouskaya said she had met with many Belarusians who were victims of the crackdown and had fled to the Czech Republic for medical treatment.
"In the Czech Republic, I met the first victims of that hell that Lukashenka unleashed in Belarus. The Czech Republic took them in to help them recover. And you know, [these] people told me their stories. And although so many months have passed by, they still couldn't help crying. It means that the things that happened to them can never be erased from their memories. They relive them over and over again," Tsikhanouskaya explained.
"It hurts to see it and then you understand once again why you are doing all of this, what you are fighting for, why it is against the regime," she added.
Tsikhanouskaya, 38, was a last-minute presidential candidate, filling in for her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, whose own bid for the presidency was derailed by his arrest and jailing last May on charges that supporters say were trumped up to keep the popular vlogger off the ballot. He faces up to 15 years in prison for organizing mass disorder, among other charges that he and supporters say are absurd.
Tsikhanouskaya, however, was allowed on the ballot in a move that seemed to show that Lukashenka didn't take her seriously.
However, she drew crowds that grew bigger as the August 9 election neared, presenting arguably the greatest challenge to the decades-long rule of Lukashenka, who was faulted for refusing to institute any restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which he dismissed as a "mass psychosis."
The Criminal Code amendments signed by Lukashenka on June 8 threaten demonstrators with years in prison for speaking out against the regime.
The law envisages a prison sentence of up to three years for participants in unsanctioned protests who have already been caught twice at similar events in the previous 12 months. Previously, taking part in unauthorized demonstrations was punishable by fines or brief jail terms ranging from several days to two weeks.