By Quentin Choy
July 31, 2021
After decades of repressive rule in Belarus, it seems that democracy finally has a fleeting chance.
Upon losing the presidential election to Alexander Lukashenko in 2020, large-scale protests swept Belarus in support for democracy and opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Tsikhanouskaya traveled to the United States to meet with President Joe Biden in hopes that America will support her pro-democracy movement and impose more targeted sanctions against Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator.
Who is Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya?
Tsikhanouskaya ran against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus’ 2020 presidential election. Much of her campaign sought to democratize Belarus and to free political prisoners held by the Lukashenko regime.
“I came to the United States with only one wish: that my beloved Belarus become free. And I’m sure it will happen. I want you to remember that when you look into my eyes, you are looking into the eyes of every political prisoner, every activist, volunteer, athlete or culture figure, who is brave enough to fight for democracy in Belarus.”Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya
She lives outside of Belarus now, afraid of what Lukashenko’s repressive, authoritarian regime might do to her and her pro-democracy supporters.
Following the 2020 election in which Tsikhanouskaya lost to Lukashenko, many voters believed that the election had been rigged by the Lukshenko regime.
While the video is older from 2017, this clip shows what people in Belarus live like under Lukashenko’s regime.
For some, Tsikhanouskaya draws comparisons to Juan Guaido, the opposition leader in Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro. Representing the opposition and being recognized by some as the “democratic leader of Belarus,” Tsikhanouskaya has created a name for herself in global politics.
However, when asked about comparisons to Guaido, Tsikhanouskaya denied that she is trying to take power in Belarus.
“I am not trying to take power in Belarus. I simply want that we — Belarusians — get back our right to choose our president. As you know, I am not going to take part in a new election. I am not going to build a political career. I am simply doing my duty.”Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Ryanair Flight 4978
Belarus and its authoritarianism under Lukashenko catapulted to the headlines following the forced landing of Ryanair Flight 4978 in May 2021.
The flight left Athens and was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet before it was able to land in Vilnius, Lithuania.
While Ryanair Flight 4978 was in midair, air traffic controllers in Belarus alerted pilots of a “potential security threat on board” and ordered the plane to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
After the forced landing, 26-year-old journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested.
Many believe that the landing of the plane was all a ploy by Lukashenko to arrest one of the top voices of opposition against him.
Tsikhanouskaya Meets the President
Following Protasevich’s arrest, many western nations condemned the Lukashenko regime and their anti-democratic practices.
The United States and the European Union placed sanctions on Belarus, hoping to bring about changes from Lukashenko.
However, Lukashenko sought a closer alliance with Putin’s Russia, a close ally.
Tsikhanouskaya is in the United States and has met with President Joe Biden, hoping to garner support for Belarus’ pro-democracy movement, of which she is the leader.
“I saw a person who is not indifferent. He is not indifferent to what is happening in Belarus.”Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Some in the U.S. House of Representatives formed a group called the “Friends of Belarus” caucus, aimed at calling attention to the lack of freedom in Belarus.
She also met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Tsikhanouskaya urged the U.S. to place tougher sanctions on Belarus, particularly on the industries that fund the Lukashenko regime such as the fertilizer industry, Belarus’ second-largest industry.
History professor Michael Kimmage believes that sanctions are helpful, but that other solutions exist in prying Belarus from Lukashenko’s iron fist.
One such solution is making it easier for Belarusians to visit the European Union to experience the freedoms of political liberty.
“The United States and the European Union should invest more in people than in transformative outcomes which it cannot deliver. Policies that make it easier for Belarusians to travel and study in the European Union should be encouraged. Gradual changes in political sensibility, whereby the habits of political liberty are internalized, should be advanced.”Michael Kimmage, professor of history at the Catholic University of America
Lukashenko Hits Back
Alexander Lukashenko knows all about Tsikhanouskaya’s diplomatic efforts to gain support for democracy in Belarus. As Europe’s last dictator, Lukashenko refuses to back down without a fight.
While he says that he can muster forces of around 500,000 troops in a short time, Lukashenko also declared that he won’t hesitate to invite Russian troops to Belarus.
“There is no need for that now. We have quite a strong, united and compact armed force…. If it is not enough, Russian armed forces will be introduced…. If it is necessary, we will not hesitate.”Alexander Lukashenko
Lukashenko also plans on making life harder for the European Union, in response for sanctioning him. Surges of migrants from Iraq are travelling through Belarus to Lithuania’s border.
The Lithuanian government believes that Lukashenko and Belarusian border guards are intentionally inviting migrants through Belarus to reach the European Union through Lithuania’s borders.
In May, Lukashenko spoke furiously after being sanctioned by the European Union, saying “we stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves.”
While I prefer Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya over Alexander Lukashenko as leader of Belarus, Lukashenko is currently the one in power. He has the strength of the Belarusian military and the backing of Putin’s Russia.
I genuinely believe that Tsikhanouskaya’s pro-democracy movement can succeed with support from America and the European Union. The fact that she has said that she doesn’t seek a political career legitimizes the movement and her diplomatic actions.
I think that continued sanctions can help force Lukashenko’s hand and that an opening up to the E.U. would be of great assistance in bringing democracy to Europe’s last dictatorship.
- What Should the Democracies of the World Do About Lukashenko’s Belarus?, WeTheCommoners
- Lithuanian Embassy, US politicians launch ‘Friends of Belarus’ caucus, The Washington Diplomat
- Belarus’s Beleaguered Opposition Seeks U.S. Support. What Are The Options?, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty
- Biden backs embattled democracy movement in Belarus, Associated Press
- Lukashenko says won’t hesitate to invite Russian troops to Belarus, Daily Sabah
- Lukashenko invites Biden and Putin to Belarus to discuss ‘problems’, Euronews
- Lithuania Says Lukashenka Is Flooding Baltic State’s Border With Migrants, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty