During her first visit to Malta, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya spoke to James Cummings about life under a dictatorship, her friendship with Roberta Metsola, and why football sometimes isn’t just a game.

While Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya takes security seriously, she knows there is always a chance something could happen to her or her followers.

“Those who are fighting the regime, we understand the threats, we understand that we are targets of the regime... [but] we can’t put a policeman with every person,” she said.

While her organisation, the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power – set up to facilitate a democratic transfer of power in Belarus – has taken steps to protect themselves, she said she was “absolutely sure” the Belarusian security services, the KGB, had already infiltrated “democratic structures” opposing the government.

The opposition leader was forced to flee Belarus after standing against the country’s autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko – a close ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a man described as “Europe’s last dictator” – in widely disputed elections in 2020.

But just because she is no longer in Belarus, there is no guarantee she is safe.

Just last month, top Russian opposition leader Leonid Volkov was hospitalised after a brutal attack by a hammer-wielding assailant in Lithuania’s capital city Vilnius – an assault believed to have been masterminded by a Belarusian national. 

And in 2021, exiled Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in a park in Kiev, the same year journalist Roman Protasevich was hauled off a Ryanair flight by Belarusian authorities after it was diverted to the country’s capital.

Does Tsikhanouskaya fear for her life?

“Of course I’m worried,” she admitted. “But I worry more about people in Belarus.”

‘Brutal terror’

Describing her country as being under a “very deep humanitarian and political disaster,” the opposition leader said living under Lukashenko’s regime was like living in constant fear.

“There’s lawlessness in the country. You can’t oppose anything. You can’t be vocal, you can’t speak your native language because although it is the formal official language, it’s the instrument for opposition to dictatorship.”

Tsikhanouskaya said some people had even been detained for wearing red and white socks because of their similarity to the former flag of Belarus, now associated with movements opposed to Lukashenko’s 30-year authoritarian rule.

And when thousands of people turned out to protest the elections described by the EU as “neither fair nor free”, the opposition leader said Lukashenko “unleashed the most brutal terror our country has seen during our independence” in response.

According to the US State Department, more than 30,000 people were detained after protesting Lukashenko’s purported landslide victory, a result described as “fraudulent” by the US.

Tsikhanouskaya said that around half a million people – roughly the population of Malta – have been forced to flee Belarus, with “thousands” of political prisoners held captive.

The opposition leader has not seen her husband since his arrest in 2020 and does not even know if he is still alive.The opposition leader has not seen her husband since his arrest in 2020 and does not even know if he is still alive.

‘Housewife’ enters politics

The opposition leader had never intended to venture into politics, but this all changed when her husband Sergei was arrested after announcing his intention to run against Lukashenko in the 2020 election. 

She has not been allowed to have any contact with Sergei since his arrest and for more than a year does not even know whether he is still alive. 

After his arrest, she decided to run in her husband’s place – a decision that attracted scorn from Lukashenko, who said a “housewife” could never be president. But she is determined to prove him wrong.

“In exile I have built alternative institutions of power, and the democratic forces of Belarus are united as never before... our task in this fight is to weaken the regime on one hand and strengthen Belarusian people on the other.”

She said that by reaching out to world leaders during visits such as to Malta this month, she hoped to “deprive the regime of political space,” prevent Lukashenko from being seen as the legitimate leader and formalise relationships with the rest of the world.

Friend and inspiration

Tsikhanouskaya singles out European Parliament President Roberta Metsola as a “real friend” and “female role model for me because I was a newbie in politics”.

But asked whether figures such as Metsola could do more to oppose Lukashenko’s regime, Tsikhanouskaya urged her and other leaders to “use the instruments and tools they have more effectively,” describing sanctions levied against

Belarus and Russia as containing “huge loopholes” that were easy to circumvent.

She explained that while sanctions imposed on Russia hit the country’s imports and those on Belarus its exports, the leaders of each country supported each other’s efforts to evade them, with Lukashenko buying goods for Putin and Putin exporting goods for Lukashenko.

“It looks like one hand is feeding democratic aspirations and the other is feeding dictators,” she said.

‘Values-based policies’

And while the EU has levied sanctions against members of Lukashenko’s regime, it appears that in some quarters, at least, it’s business as usual, with Malta playing Belarus in a game of football in March.

Does Tsikhanouskaya agree the match should have happened? Stressing “nothing is out of politics,” she said democratic countries should cease “any cooperation, any sporting events, cultural events, with this dictatorial regime,” imploring countries to work with sportspersons who oppose the authoritarian ruler instead.

And while being careful to point out she wasn’t referring to Malta directly, the opposition leader said Belarusians feel “betrayed” when they see democratic countries engaging with Lukashenko’s regime.

“We are dying, we are suffering... and you’re like, ‘business is business’,” she said.

“We ask our partners to hold values-based policy, not business-based policy, because dictators watch what’s going on in democracy. They don’t respect democracy. They think you are indecisive – and they perceive this as weakness.”

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