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PRAGUE — Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, an exiled democratic opposition leader in Belarus, says her country’s fate is tied to the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

“We understand our responsibility in the context of the war in Ukraine,” Tsikhanouskaya told RFE/RL in an interview at its headquarters in Prague on May 11.

“We understand that we have to fight for Ukraine now to fight for Belarus later,” she said. “We understand that without a free Ukraine there can be no free Belarus.”

Tsikhanouskaya, 39, was a last-minute presidential candidate, replacing her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, whose own presidential bid was derailed by his arrest and jailing on charges that supporters say were fabricated pieces to ward off the popular August vlogger. ballot 2020.

Fearing for her safety and that of her family, the former English teacher turned politician left Belarus the day after the vote, which resulted in a sixth presidential term for authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and has led the Belarusian opposition ever since. his exile in Lithuania. .

Following massive protests against the vote, which the opposition says were rigged, Lukashenka launched a harsh and often violent crackdown, jailing tens of thousands of protesters, most of his political opponents, and muzzling the media independent.

In reaction to the situation, the European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus and imposed sanctions on him and several senior Belarusian officials.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

Isolated and financially weakened, Lukashenko turned to longtime ally Russia for support, and his since responded in kind by allowing Moscow to launch attacks against Ukraine and provide forces from Belarusian territory.

Tsikhanouskaya said Belarusian citizens, unlike the country’s leaders, are “doing what they can” to support their neighbour.

“By helping Ukraine, we are also helping ourselves. Because when Ukraine wins, it will mean that the Kremlin is weak and, therefore, Lukashenka is weak. This will open a new window of opportunity for the Belarusians, for protests and strikes,” she said.

In response to questions from the Belarusian service of RFE/RL and Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, about what will happen after the fighting ends, Tsikhanouskaya replied that “once that Ukraine will win this war, the rest will be up to the Belarusians.”

“How can we make the most of the moment? How can we weaken [Lukashenka’s] diet? All our work is aimed, on the one hand, at weakening the regime and, on the other hand, at empowering the people of Belarus,” she said.

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Tsikhanouskaya said his movement has started the process of opening a representative office in Kyiv so that he can be in closer contact with Ukrainian officials and the Belarusian diaspora in Ukraine.

Despite the war in Ukraine, the Belarusian opposition has been bolstered by “100% support from western democratic countries”, Tsikhanouskaya said.

“They support our movement and our efforts to change our country,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “And we have been assured that there will be no negotiations behind the backs of Belarusians. Lukashenka is illegitimate and no one will recognize him until our conditions are met – the release of political prisoners and an end to repressions. “

Much of Tsikhanouskaya’s efforts since Russia’s Feb. 24 attack on Ukraine has been to remind Western countries that the Lukashenko government should not be seen as representative of the Belarusian people.

“When the war broke out and Belarus became an aggressor in the eyes of other countries, [Western governments] were forced to act decisively,” she said. “We have made it clear over time that the Belarusian regime is an aggressor, not the people. [of Belarus]… Every visit, every meeting, every phone call we make is aimed at making it clear that Belarusians shouldn’t have to pay for Lukashenka’s mistakes.”

“We always say that the sanctions against the Belarusian regime must be as strong as those against Russia, but they must be structured differently,” Tsikhanouskaya explained, saying that the sanctions against Belarus should target state companies and banks and that small businesses and private companies should be protected. as much as possible.

She also called on Western countries to extend visas to ordinary Belarusians, especially students, and find ways to support independent Belarusian media.

“We have also approached tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft to wage a tougher fight against [state] propaganda and to help Belarusian journalists and our people,” she said.

According to the Belarusian Independent Association of Journalists, two dozen journalists are currently detained in Belarus, including Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison in December 2021.

“People are looking up to the sky and asking, ‘Why do we have to go through this?'” she said.

“In the case of Belarusians, it is for our silence, for our apolitical position, for not taking responsibility for our country. We felt satisfied in our small circles of family and friends. collective responsibility.”

Alycia R. Lindley