A Conversation With Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya discusses Belarus-U.S. relations, prospects for democratic reform in Belarus, and regional security in Eastern Europe.
GRAHAM: My name is Tom Graham. I’m a distinguished fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And I want to welcome all of you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Meeting with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. You’ll see the two of us are sitting on stage. The rest of our members are participating by Zoom. This is our first hybrid meeting as we move into what we hope is the post-pandemic phase.
As you all know, Madam Tsikhanouskaya is the leader of the Belarus democratic opposition which, since last August, has been pressing for the ouster of Alexander Lukashenko and for a democratic process to take place in Belarus. Madam Tsikhanouskaya has been spending the last year building support for the opposition outside of—outside of Belarus, in Europe and in the United States. Last week she was in Washington holding conversations with—meeting administration and congressional officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. And she’s now in New York. And she has decided to set some time aside to talk to all of us. And we’re very pleased to have you here. We want a very warm welcome to you and hope that we’ll have a very insightful conversation over the next hour.
I want to start with a question about the opposition—the state of the opposition. You know, that the opposition captured the imagination of many people in the West last year with a massive demonstration, very unexpected. But Lukashenko has cracked down very hard. Many of the leaders have been exiled or put into prison. And it proved impossible earlier this year to revive those massive demonstrations of last summer. So the first question is, where do things stand now? What are the lessons that you’ve learned over the past year? What is your strategy going forward? And why do you think it’s going to succeed?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you, first of all, for this invitation. It’s very important for me to have the opportunity to speak once again about Belarus. And, you know, sometimes it’s a pity, to me, when I hear that it’s always people don’t see those huge, beautiful demonstrations on the streets of Minsk and regional cities it means that the opposition was suppressed. It’s not so, because demonstrations is just a part of protesting movement. Of course, with the help of violence, with the help of guns and tortures, regime succeeded to suppress this visibility. People at the moment can’t go out openly to the streets because the wave of repression is over. You can be detained for wearing white-red-white coats or socks. And, you know, white-red-white is the color of our national symbols.
And of course, the fear of tortures, fear of humiliation in jails is awful in Belarus. But in spite of this—and this is where real hair-raising—that people are continuing to fight, people are continuing to fight underground, secretly. People use this time when it’s impossible to demonstrate openly to build structures on the ground. Our medics are united with the medics from all the regions, and they communicate and they share information. They are working on reforms in health care. We have a wide network of volunteers on the ground who—widespread information, who widespread in samizdat, it’s so-called—self-made newspapers to help those people who don’t have access to internet, or to villages, you know, to inform what’s going on in reality. Our workers are united—are united in striking committee, and when it will be right time to go for a national-wide strike.
We have our ex-law enforcement officers who are working with us. They are contacting with law enforcement who are still there on the ground, who are still working in the regime. But they provide us with video, audio recordings, documents. It’s also very helpful in our fight. Our sportsmen are so united. We have many sportsmen in jails. And they are so in the fight now. They are widespread and they work all over the world, you know, attracting attention to our problems. Our diasporas, though they are not inside, but they’re so helpful. Our diaspora is united, also previous summer, and doing huge job. In every country, they are communicating to their government. They are creating this tense—just making governments to pay more attention to Belarus.
So this struggle inside country is continuing. Of course, a lot of people who had to flee the country because of the repressions, they continue to fight outside. It’s also very important not to lose active population. And of course, we had to take care of people who are on the ground. We can’t send—just send people, go and demonstrate, because we’ll lose everything—everybody. We see that regime, you know, maybe they will not stop from shooting people. Who knows? We can’t risk with people. It’s enough people behind the bars. At the moment we have 584 political prisoner, and thousands who are still not recognized but also in prison because of politically motivated cases.
Now regime is destroying everything on the ground. They are destroying alternative mass media. They are destroying different organizations that have been working in Belarus for years, that have been the connection with other countries. They are destroying human right defending centers. You know, it’s awful. And our task in future will be to restore everything. But now, of course, we are fighting for returning people their right to choose their future. But we understand what regime is making now. And people who are inside the regime also see this. And we maybe will talk a little bit later about, you know, closest environment of Lukashenko.
But I just want to tell, even if you don’t see pictures from inside, don’t think that everything is over. People continue to fight as much as they can. We don’t have a lot of space inside the country. That’s why we are of so great amount of help from outside.
GRAHAM: Could you talk a little bit about your role in the democratic opposition? I would imagine a year and a half ago you didn’t think you would find yourself in this position. But developments inside Belarus, in a sense, compelled you in that direction. The arrest of your husband, Sergei, during the presidential election. You stepped in as a substitute, but you’ve turned into a leader from the democratic opposition. You’re the face of Belarus for many people outside the country right now.
The question I have for you is how do you see your position going forward? What you said in some of your public comments is that you want to obviously remove the—Alexander Lukashenko, and then head a transition government for a very short period for new presidential elections, let the people choose a new leader and you’ll step aside. But it’s very difficult for a politician, once she has had this exposure and has done the things that you’ve done, to step aside. So do you see a future for yourself as a leader in a democratic Belarus?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You’re absolutely right. I’m here on this place by fate. I’m here only because I believed Belarusians that they want changes, and people believed in me. Now, and I’m doing what I can. You know, I can’t call myself the leader of the revolution because it’s everybody who is doing something is already a leader, because it’s impossible, you know, to organize everybody. People are self-organized. You’re right, I’m not going to participate in new elections. It’s not my aim. And I talked about this to Belarusians in the presidential campaign.
My mandate is only to be with Belarusians till we bring our country to new elections. Of course, now I understand that I—you know, I studied a lot, I have a lot of contacts and relations with other countries. And I think that I can be useful in future Belarus. It’s not necessary—there’s no necessity to be the president of the country to be useful for the development. And I will be—I can be somewhere in politics, maybe in human right defendant organization, or wherever. I don’t know, just to—as much as Belarusians need me, no more. But I will really—I can easily leave this, as you say, political career, if you can say so, and move to other direction.
GRAHAM: So let someone stand in the spotlight, but you’re going to be an active participant in helping Belarus through a democratic transition, building the type of country that you think you want and that most of the people in Belarus want.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know, I understand that people perceive me as ordinary woman, that together for Belarusians fighting for these changes. And I understand that people know that, you know, what sympathy and empathy I have. And I can be like a moral authority in the future, you know? Maybe I could play this role.
GRAHAM: Well, that’s an important role. Let me ask another question. You said that you studied a lot over the past year. One of the questions I have is that you—as you think about the challenges that the democratic opposition faces in Belarus today, have you studied the experience of other democratic opposition movements in Eastern Europe over the past ten, fifteen or twenty years for sort of insights on how you should construct your strategy going forward? And have you found support from many of these other democratic activists in Central, East Europe—Eastern Europe as well—for your movement?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I didn’t have a chance to investigate very deep over democratic movements. But of course, we know about every one that happened in Europe recently. And, you know, every country has its own path. It can’t be repeated in other country, because every country has its own context, and the support, you know, and the unity of democratic forces. But anyway, I still believe that we will reach our democratic changes peacefully, that we, Belarus, can be an example how it’s possible without violence, you know, from our side, to bring our country from autocracy to democracy. And we have a huge support from Ukrainian people, from Russian people, and from other countries as well who are on the—in the fight to democratic changes. We met with some ambassadors from those countries. And we have to support each other, of course, because solidarity is extremely important in this fight. And study the experiences but, you know, have (strictly ?) to your own aims and goals.
GRAHAM: Right. But you see yourself as part of a larger democratic movement and you are adjusting that to the specific circumstances of Belarus?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Absolutely, yeah.
GRAHAM: Let’s turn a little bit to Lukashenko now. I think you can say, with all fairness, that he is where he is because of two sources of support: the CDBKYI (ph), other government officials; and Russia. Let’s start with the CDBKYI (ph), the government elite. Are you beginning to see cracks in the support for Lukashenko? You mentioned that you do have people inside the government who are keeping you informed. Do you have reason to believe that there’s growing discontent, that your message is getting across to government officials, and that Lukashenko is going to become ever weaker the farther we go in this process?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: First of all, maybe if I may, to—if I may say that I think that regime is supported by two pillars. It’s CDBKYI (ph) and money. OK, we could discuss this in the future, yeah.
GRAHAM: They go together. (Laughs.)
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: But of course, people who are in law enforcement circle, who are nimeclatura (ph) people, they also want changes. It’s impossible to work under constant control. You know, people in the nimeclatura (ph), in law enforcement, assure that they are being spied all the time, that they can be betrayed by any other person. And they understand that Lukashenko is over. He lost control under the minds of people. And we have a lot of cases of people who spent in jail either fifteen, thirty years, saw the signs from administrators of jails, you know, from officers in those jails. You know, they are showing small signs of support to those—to prisoners, understanding that they are with us.
We have heard stories that some, you know, officer was putting all the data about prisoner, and simultaneously saying that: I’m with you. I’m supporting you. Thank you for your fight, but I’m doing what I have to do. So because regime is like mafia, it’s easy to come into this but it’s difficult to leave. And people in regime, of course, they’re scared of their families, of, you know, the brutality of the regime. But I’m sure that one day when it’s right time, they will join, you know, democratic movement. They are already with us. But to understand those people, it’s necessary to live in Belarus, you know, knowing the cruelty of the regime. But again, we are communicating with ministries, with the nimeclatura (ph) people, with law enforcement. And it’s—they send us clear message: They are not agree with regime, but they, like, look, we can’t do anything else.
GRAHAM: Right. And of course, Russia doesn’t make it any easier for these people to move away from Lukashenko at this point. Let’s talk a little bit about Russia at this point. I’d be interested in how you understand Russia’s position on Belarus. What are they after? Is there anything that the democratic opposition can do to ease those concerns that would make it—would facilitate the types of changes that you’re trying to engineer inside Belarus itself?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know, I think that Russia supported—not Russia, but Kremlin. Because, you know, we are in a good relationship with Russian people. Kremlin supported Lukashenko after fraudulent elections because they also didn’t expect such uprising of people. Because in previous years, people also uprised, but Lukashenko managed to suppress all those uprisings rather fast, and everything continued as before. But this year, you know, Lukashenko maybe and Kremlin lost connection with people, didn’t understand the mood of people. And, you know, Kremlin could prepare loyal candidate for presidency, you know, but—and then they supported Lukashenko means that they supported torture, supported violence. And it was also disappointment for Belarusian people.
And since then, it’s evident that it’s not, like, comfortable for Russia to let—you know, they—of course, it’s not up to them to decide about Belarus. But it’s not comfortable that Belarus will come to democracy through uprising, through revolution. And that’s why they continue to support regime. It’s not very evident now. You know, we really don’t know what’s going on behind the curtains between our two countries, but we always say that Lukashenko lost his legitimacy. All their deals, all their plans that are going on between ex-president of Belarus and president of Russia, they are not legal. They will be, for sure, viewed in new Belarus. And on the other hand, there’s the situation that our region became unstable. Sanctions are imposed on Belarusian businesses, it’s also not comfortable for Russia.
You know, I think that other countries look at Belarus as buffer zone between East and West. And now when all those connections lost, so regime can’t play its role anymore. And I think that the Kremlin would like to get rid of Lukashenko but it’s not very evident how to do this at the moment. But, again, I understand why a question about Russia rises all the time. But you know, it’s not about Russia. It’s about—it’s only Belarus. We want to continue trade profitable for both countries—trade relationship with Russia. We will always be neighbors, you know? (Laughs.) We always will be nearby. And we have to create normal relationship. But it’s important with Lukashenko at the moment. So if Russia wants to—if Kremlin wants to play constructive role in getting out of Belarusian crisis, just the only thing that they can do is not to interfere into internal affairs.
GRAHAM: So you were in Washington last week, talking with senior officials.
GRAHAM: I’d imagine a lot of them had Russia on their mind as well. So the question I have for you, what was the message that you wanted to convey to the secretary of state, the national security advisor, the congressional leaders? What is it that they need to understand about what’s happening in Belarus, the state of the democratic opposition, and what the United States can do to help promote democracy in Belarus?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know, in this situation, when in the world ongoing crisis—ongoing fight between autocracy and democracy, I think that it’s moral obligation of the USA and other democratic countries to be with Belarus, because Belarus at the moment is on frontline of this struggle. And we had very warm meetings. It was understandable for me that the USA is ready to do—to be with people of Belarus in this fight for democratic changes, because we’re sharing common values.
It’s not—yeah, locally this fight in Belarus, but it’s global fight between autocracy and democracy. And we just talked first of all about people in Belarus. I told a lot about prisoners, about their fates. And what is very important, to support people. To support people who are on the ground, support people who are in exile, support mass media that are being destroyed, and businesses that had to flee because of their political position. It’s important to make our present sustainable.
Second, the need to put pressure on the regime, just to change their behavior. We understand that sanctions is not silver bullet, it will not bring our country to democracy. But it will make regime stop violence in Belarus, release political prisoners, and start dialogue with people. Because, as you know, our—a major point of our strategy is release political prisoners, start negotiations with the regime, and bring our country to new elections. So sanctions can be a powerful leverage to help us to stop tortures and humiliation in Belarus.
And the third aspect, among others of course, is vision of a new Belarus. It’s very important to understand that we are in our ongoing fight, but changes will come one day and we have to be prepared for these changes. We don’t know what our country will do, like, in that period, because as I have said regime is destroying economy, destroying organizations, destroying civil society. And we will have to rebuild everything. So now European Union has already launched Belarusian comprehensive plan where it declared financial assistance in the period after new elections, express assistance in reforms. So they say could also be very supportive in this road, and declare—you know, and organize, launch something like this. And it would be a strong message for those people—for those colleagues who are still beside Lukashenko that, you know, we will have better future after regime falls.
GRAHAM: OK. So there are a number of things that Western countries, the United States in particular, can do that would be helpful to your project in Belarus. What is it that you want the United States not to do? What are the things that would make your life more difficult that you would advise the administration to avoid?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: We want to avoid any sign of legitimization of Lukashenko. Not given credentials by ambassadors. Not communicating with Lukashenko because, you know, he is using every small event that could legitimize him like his victory. I don’t know which country recently sent—automatically sent to Lukashenko congratulations with some event. I don’t remember which. And they in propaganda, you know, showed this as, look, we are congratulated by, I don’t know, Sweden or one of the countries—or Denmark. Not—to make him toxic. Don’t talk to him. There are people in the regime you may talk to who are legal, but not to him personally. Delegitimization is also very good leverage for putting pressure on regime.
GRAHAM: OK. And then I have one final question for you before we turn to the questions from our members. You talked about a vision for Belarus. Help us understand what that vision is in your own mind. You know, I realize that it’s very difficult at this point, given the state of the country, what Lukashenko has done to destroy the economy, the way he has constructed his regime. But when you think about your country five or ten years from now, what would you like to be able to say to the world? This is Belarus, this is why Belarus matters?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Belarus, in couple of years, is the country where person is the most value for the government, where they—people feel safe, people feel self-confident in the country, they understand that—they are proud to be useful for their country. They are proud that their brains, their skills are useful for the development of Belarus. And why Belarus matters for the rest of the world? Because we will be success story. We will be success story where democracy prevailed after twenty-six years—twenty-eight years already autocracy. And it will be model how other countries—which other countries can use in their fight for democratic changes.
GRAHAM: So with that, let me turn to the members for their questions. And I’ll turn it over to Laura.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Krishen Sud.
Q: Yes, hi. It’s Krishen Sud. Thank you for taking this question.
I was wondering whether you saw Ukraine as a roadmap in terms of a way that Belarus could move forward. You know, they clearly had a Russian-supported strongman, and similar to what’s in Belarus. Or do you think that Russia has learned a lot from the Ukraine experience that makes it difficult for you to go down that road? Thank you.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Reiterate the question?
GRAHAM: The question’s about Ukraine, and whether you have learned anything from Ukraine—the Ukrainian experience.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: First of all, we are really grateful to Ukraine. Though it’s also in rather difficult position at the moment, they are moving step-by-step to changing of their values. They are so supportive. So many people were relocated to Ukraine, and Ukrainian government helps as much as they can to support all those people and businesses. And they invite different IT specialists to work permanently in the Ukraine to support them. Of course—and we are grateful to Ukraine that Ukraine supported sanctions that were launched by European Union. And they show this from position about Belarus.
Of course, for them sometimes it’s difficult to be extremely open about the situation in Belarus because they feel, you know, this—that Lukashenko can blackmail them because we have a border, and he can blackmail them with Russian forces at the borders. And they are—you know, but still it’s very important that Ukrainian people are with Belarusians in this very difficult moment. We understand all the difficulties in our relationship at the moment, but it’s not because they don’t want to support us. It’s only because they are also in a terrible position.
GRAHAM: Do you see any parallels between what happened in Ukraine seven years ago, the Maidan revolution, and the situation in Belarus today? Again, two pro-Russian—or, Russian-favored presidents, corrupt regimes, repression of democratic civil society. Do you see those parallels?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: We control—we can see a lot of parallels, but also we can see a lot of differences in the—in our uprising, because in Belarus we don’t have this anti-Russian cause or pro-European. Everything we want is change—is give people right to choose what they want. You know, we have different contexts. I mean, similarities, but many differences as well.
GRAHAM: Right. So you don’t want to put yourself in a geopolitical game.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Absolutely, yeah.
GRAHAM: You want to stay out of that and avoid some of the troubles that Ukraine has had.
Laura, could we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Cynthia Roberts.
Q: Thank you. Thank you, Tom, for doing—for organizing this session.
My question goes back to the issue of elite consolidation or elite conflict that could help the democratization and movement that you are leading. And here, you’ve mentioned—both to Tom and in many interviews—that you are in touch with state officials that want Lukashenko gone. And yet, I wonder if you would agree that at least for the current moment, Lukashenko seems to have consolidated the elites, tying them to his fate.
And in particular, I wonder if you could comment on the last few month’s moves with respect to the military. He fired, for example, Sergei Trus in December last year, the chief of the general staff. He’s reappointed a number of military officials. And then just recently there was this strange move where he decreed that he would transfer his powers to the security council which, of course, is stacked with military officials, if he were killed for some reason. All suggesting he has a lot more trust in the military than in the civilian officials. So are we still rather far from the kinds of elite splits that might be necessary to advance the movement? Or do you think that might still be possible in the nearer term? Thank you.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you. Of course, regime wants to show that they are monolithic, there are so many supporters there, and so on. But, as you mentioned, you know, there is so many reorganization of the structures, it’s like changing chairs on the Titanic. You know, you—it means that Lukashenko doesn’t trust to anybody. He can’t allow that some official could gain a lot of power around himself and, for example, once they betrayed Lukashenko himself. It’s only evidence of noncertainty of the regime. And businesses also that are very close to Lukashenko, that support him, they also understand—continue this analogy of the Titanic—that Lukashenko is sinking. And you can sink with him—they wanted to share this responsibility for human rights violations with Lukashenko. They want to have their businesses. And that’s it. And it’s evident that Lukashenko is over. He’s toxic to the whole of the world. They have to choose if to stay with him or to come to new Belarus, together with the other people.
And it’s—all this—all this, how to say—OK. All this has shaken regime. Nothing is stable there. You know, though it seems that they have guns and they are stable, absolutely not. People—Army is—they understand that these are people with, how to say this?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah, with epaulets, they have to fulfill orders. But there is no moral support of the regime.
GRAHAM: Let me ask a follow-up question on that. What do you tell people in the government now, working for the government, what their future will be once Lukashenko is, if you move towards a democratic regime? What’s their life going to be like? Are they going to be able to survive in a democratic Belarus? Or is there some element that will be ostracized in some way?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I think that the majority of people in ministries and in the nimeclatura (ph) will be—will (bear their places ?). You know, it’s interesting fact that those people are—can work, not thanks to Lukashenko but despite of him, you know? They could survive those, you know, difficult situations. So they will be able to be—to govern the country, you know, in future, but with normal—you know, normalized country, with peaceful civil society, you know, where everybody wants to work for prosperous Belarus. And, yeah, those who committed crimes—but it’s mostly about law enforcement. Of course, they will have to be put in front of fair trial. But nimeclatura (ph) people, you know, they can easily work further if they share the same values.
GRAHAM: OK. Laura, can we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from James Gilmore.
Q: Thank you.
Madam, I am the immediate past ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna and met with you at the Polish Embassy this past year. And I congratulate you, and I hope that you stay safe in this situation. My question is, what is your assessment of the people of Belarus? Have they given up and resigned themselves to living under the dictatorship? And very quickly, what is the fate of Maria Kalesnikava and your husband at this point?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you. You know, those people who are behind the bars now, they didn’t betray their values. They are so strong. They send us very strong letters where they say the words of support for those who are continuing to fight. And this is remarkable. OK, this is—people in Belarus understand that we are responsible for those who sacrificed with their lives, with their freedom, with their health, just to give us opportunity to fight for that. Maria is very supportive. She is, as I said, you know, sending messages. And we, you know, widespread these messages everywhere. Sergei now has his so-called trial in prison, where no relatives, no journalists are allowed, because Lukashenko is so afraid of those strong people who are behind the bars but they are continuing the fight. They are absolutely innocent. And they are still strong. You know, Sergei even behind the bars says about, you know, our future, about our fight, that we have to be strong, you know. They are so inspirational, is that—
GRAHAM: Inspirational, yeah.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Inspirational. And it’s—we have—we can’t communicate with those people directly, only through the lawyer. But we feel them. We are fighting for all those people.
GRAHAM: How often do you have communication with your husband? It’s through the attorneys, I understand, but—
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: A many times as lawyer visits him. Just we communicate through the lawyer. And we can send only very simple messages, like how are you, how are children, how are parents, and so on, because we understood that all the conversations between lawyer and prisoner, they are heard, even they shouldn’t have to be heard. So we can’t—we can’t send, like, sensitive messages to each other.
GRAHAM: OK. Laura, can we have the next question, please.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the next question from Anna Plance.
Q: Hello and thanks for—thanks for being here. Anna Plance. I represent Bank of New York Mellon.
COVID pandemic presented an additional challenge in the fight against the regime, in the sense that when protests broke out last August I think the world was locked down and focused on their own problems, and also movement of people across countries remains limited. Embassies only operate on business-critical basis. Just yesterday in the meeting in Battery Park that I attended you said that people inside Belarus cannot do much to help in fear of prosecution. So I wonder, in your discussions with senior representatives of various countries, is there any discussion around embassy reopenings or potentially visas being made available to allow people who are being followed and fearing prosecutions to leave on a temporary basis?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: It’s about visa?
GRAHAM: The embassies, in Belarus, I presume. Are they opening up, doing business, interacting with the Belarusian people now?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know, it’s a pity that so many ambassadors have been sent out of the countries, and some embassies have only one or two people. But still, we understand necessity of opening visas or people who have to flee the country because of their repressions. And it’s difficult, you know, for—embassies?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: To work inside Belarus. But who is still left, they are doing their best. And they are talking about lifting visas in this difficult days for those who have to flee country or for relatives—for prisoners, you know, for relatives. It’s very important for Belarusians to feel free in relocating. But of course, it’s a matter of not of one day. And it can be discussed, you know, in—but I think that in future, in new Belarus, the question about lifting visas will be very important, and all the countries will accept these changes.
GRAHAM: Let me pose the question a somewhat different way. There are a number of embassies—Western embassies—in Belarus at this point, in Minsk. Are they operating in ways that are supportive of democratic change in Belarus? Or do you find them dealing almost exclusively with the government? In a sense, legitimizing Lukashenko?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: As for ambassadors, especially after August event, many ambassadors came to—came to prisons, you know, to wonder how people are feeling. They were not allowed, but still. And these were foreign diplomats and ambassadors who protected—physically protected Svetlana Alexievich, our one Nobel Prize writer, from detaining. And it was very, you know, clear message to Lukashenko’s regime that ambassadors are with people. And after this, you know, embassies started to close, and diplomats had to be sent from the country. And at the moment, you know, when first day of my husband’s trial was, many diplomats also came to another city to visit trial. They were not allowed, but, you know, a lot of ambassadors are keeping—sending letters to law enforcement affairs to ask how people are in jails, you know, and all the symbolic gestures are important. They are writing letters to political prisoners.
But as to about legitimization of Lukashenko, we ask every country not to at least give credentials to Lukashenko, not to legitimize him. And some countries, like—where on our side in this question, some countries gave credentials. But of course, it’s up to foreign policy to every country. But we are grateful to every ambassador who found strength, to every country that didn’t legitimize Lukashenko with this—with this event.
GRAHAM: Laura, could we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Lee Cullum.
Q: Thank you very much. I’m a journalist in Dallas, and certainly have followed this story with great admiration.
You’ve said that, of necessity, Belarus, even if freed from the current oppression, will have to get along with its neighbor, Russia. There’s no way out of that. And yet, Putin over the past few years has been clear about wanting to reabsorb Belarus into—much more closely into his orbit. How would you deal with that? I mean, assuming you can prevail—and I hope you do—how do you live? How do you get along without—how do you keep the bearhug at bay?
GRAHAM: Right. And what would be the fate of the union state?
GRAHAM: What would the fate of the union state—the Belarus-Russian union state that you’re supposed to have?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Belarus-Russia union state? So we are—this is up to Belarusian people to decide. It’s not the task of this situation to think how we’re going to be closer with Russia, or Ukraine, or Australia, or whatever. Our task now is to solve the crisis inside our country, and then ask people: Where do we want to be? As far as I see it, our country is neutral, that makes friendship with all surrounding countries. And I believe we can, because even, you know, those people who are fighting against the dictatorship now, there are a lot of people who want—who want closer relationship with Russia. A lot of people want a closer relationship with the West, for example. Some of them think that we have to be alone, no unions, but it’s up to people. This is what we have to understand. We are not choosing our future now. We are choosing—you know, we are choosing the right of people to choose, you know, in this way.
GRAHAM: Right. So the focus on what’s happening internally in Belarus.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Absolutely. Absolutely.
GRAHAM: And once you solve that problem, then you want to take a look at how you organize you relations with surround—
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you for assistance. (Laughs.)
GRAHAM: No, no, no. It’s very important.
Next question, Laura, please.
Q: We’ll take the next question from Paul Podolsky.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Hi. Paul Podolsky. I’m a writer. Thank you for your comments. Fascinating.
I wondered, since Lukashenko has been in power for so long, if you have any insight on the timing of the protests. And in particular, I wonder about the growth of the information technology industry within Belarus, where now there’s a significant percent of the population that is both very talented and also very connected to the rest of the world through outsourcing projects in information technology, and if you believe that that connection played a role in the timing of the rejection of Lukashenko’s rule. Thank you.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Well, I can’t say the date when regime is over. The only thing I know is that Belarusian people will fight till our victory, till new elections. And to make this fight smoother and faster, again, we need international support. This is not only our obligation to fight, it’s moral obligation of all the democratic countries. And of course, we have a lot of wonderful IT specialists in Belarus who are fighting against the regime. They are using all the technologies, use communication with other countries to attract attention to the question, to use methods—for example, you know, when we launched the alternative voting in Belarus to prove that elections were fraudulent, this is our wonderful IT specialist who launched this program, Golos—named Golos, “Voice,” that alternatively counted the voices.
So and what is prominent, you know, IT specialists in Belarus get rather high service, because they are working with international companies. And while demonstrations, you know, it seems you have good salaries. Why do you go out for demonstrations? Why are you struggling? You have normal lives. IT specialists showed that this is because of dignity, not because of money, not because of level of life. This is because of the dignity. And now Belarusian IT specialists are of great demand in the world, but most of them want to go back to Belarus and be with us in future Belarus. So they are also doing their best, communicating with foreign companies, you know, to found tools how to—how to be useful for this fight.
GRAHAM: OK. Laura, could we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Stephen Sestanovich.
Q: Hi. It’s Steven Sestanovich at CFR and Columbia University.
I’d like to take you back to the question of sanctions and international pressure. The EU has announced a package of new steps, rather impressive in some ways. But with the EU, you know, decision making of this kind is always a gradual process. Can you tell us how confident you are that the EU countries will keep increasing pressure on Lukashenko and Belarus? And what are you and your associates doing to keep EU governments moving forward in this area?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: We always—in my meetings with other countries, I always talk about consistency of the policy—of the foreign policy, because democratic countries just can’t stand and look at what’s going on in Belarus—like, close their eyes. And already imposed such efficient sanctions on the regime, one day they will not stop and say, OK, sanctions don’t work. You know, Lukashenko is sending immigrants to borders, whatever else he will do nobody knows. And we will stop supporting Belarusians. I really doubt it can happen. We can’t return to business as usual, as it was before. And so half of the world declared Lukashenko is legitimate. They declared they support the Belarusian people. So they have to follow the same strategy in the future.
And if—to do what they can. You know, sanctions are not endless. You know—(laughs)—you know, and just to put all their efforts to isolate Lukashenko economically, politically, diplomatically. And this will bring totally changes, I’m sure.
GRAHAM: Well, Laura, I think we have time for one last question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Dov Zakheim.
Q: Hello. I’m Dov Zakheim with CNA and Center for Strategic and International Studies.
I want to follow up on your—two statements you made. One was that you would prefer that Belarus remain neutral. The other was that you would follow the view of the Belarusian people. Are you talking about a referendum? And what if the referendum militates for Belarus being part of the West? Could you clarify, please?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Usually people show their will on referendums. And of course, if there will be demand from the society that we want referendum on this or that question, absolutely it’s—government has to launch such referendums on demands of people. And I don’t know what questions will be put on these referendums, but if people want something, you know, it’s necessity of the government to fulfil the will of people. Did that answer?
GRAHAM: That’s pretty straightforward.
We have a lot more to discuss but we have no more time to discuss it. But this has been a fascinating hour. Thank you for spending the time with us. I’m sure all our members appreciated it. We wish you the best of luck in your endeavors as you go forward, and please come back sometime again to talk to us here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And we will have an actual audience sitting in the room with us.
I want to note that this session will be posted on the CFR website. So thank you all for joining us. Thank you, and all the best.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you for the invitation and thank you for your attention to Belarus.