Just over a year ago, on Aug. 9, 2020, I stood in Belarus’s presidential election against Aleksandr Lukashenko. The dictator, who has ruled the country for 27 years with an iron fist, stole victory from us, setting off widespread protests. We united in a national pro-democracy movement to demand the release of all political prisoners, an end to state violence and a free and fair election.
The regime responded with violence. Since then, more than 35,000 people have been detained, nearly 5,000 of whom claim they were tortured. The authorities have started 4,691 politically motivated criminal cases, and according to Viasna, an independent human rights center, there are now over 600 political prisoners. Ten people have lost their lives.
The past year has been hard. Belarusians learned that the road to democracy is long and arduous. But the struggle goes beyond Belarus: All democratic nations have a stake in the future of the country. Not only is there a moral imperative to support our cause, but there’s a strategic one, too, as an autocratic regime threatens to spread chaos across Europe. For the good of the continent, it must be stopped. And Belarusians, who have already come so far, must be free.
The strength of our democratic movement is plain to see. Last year, on Aug. 16, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets. Since then, there have been peaceful protests, big and small, formal and informal, all over the country. By the end of the year, up to 1.5 million people had taken part in demonstrations. People organized themselves organically through social media, YouTube and Telegram channels.
There have been setbacks, of course. Our reliance on the internet made us susceptible to shutdowns and censorship — websites blocked, media outlets raided — and the regime’s merciless repression, over time, diminished some people’s appetite for protest. What’s more, we struggled to persuade state and security officials to defect, a prerequisite for the felling of the regime.
In response, we’ve built a new civil society based on a network of solidarity funds, striking committees, citizen media, mutual aid organizations and volunteer groups — often coordinated through secure messaging or even printed newspapers. And we have sought, through our comprehensive plan for national reconciliation, to persuade those not involved in state crimes against Belarusians to join us. The strength of our movement lies in horizontal networks, informal communities and the shared belief in a Belarus that is free, lawful and democratic.
Her Plan to Topple Europe’s Last Dictator
My husband was jailed for daring to run against our president, so I ran in his place.
“What would you do for love? The man I love was trying to topple a dictator. And then he went to jail for it. So I did what any loyal wife would do. I ran in his place. I have no interest in politics. My dream is just to be a good mother and a great wife. And now I’m leading a revolution against Europe’s last dictator.” [MUSIC PLAYING] ”(CHANTING) Sveta! Sveta!” [GUNFIRE] “My name is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. And I’m from Belarus. We are run by a dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. He’s oppressive tyrant who has been in power for 26 years.” Europe’s closest equivalent to North Korea. Accused of human rights abuses, stifling dissent, and running sham elections. “A lot of people who disagree with him just disappeared.” The president had ordered his assassination. DW News has spoken with a man who says that he was a member of the death squads. “When COVID came, he asked, ‘Do you see this COVID around? I don’t see it. So it doesn’t exist.’” Belarus has one of Europe’s highest per capita infection rates. “Thousands of people died because of it.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “Our president doesn’t respect his people at all. My husband went around the country just talking to usual people, asking how they were living.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “He was touched by ordinary people who didn’t have good conditions for working.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “And it became so important for him.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “He was showing all these videos on his YouTube channel, ‘A Country for Life.’ His subscribers started to ask him to run for presidency because he knew all the problems from inside.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “I was sitting at home with my children. And I was worrying about him. Authorities knew that he will be a serious opponent for Mr. Lukashenko. And he was jailed. So I collected documents for myself and brought these documents to Election Commission. At that moment, I didn’t think about country. Maybe it sounds wrong. But, at very that moment, I was thinking only about my husband, to support him. But I was sure that they know who I was. And they will never, never allow me to be registered. And it was great surprise when they did. I’m sure that they did this just to laugh at me. They were sure that people will never vote for a woman, for unknown person, for housewife. We went around Belarus. I’ve never talked to such amount of people. I was afraid that I will forget all the words. I understood how dangerous, in our country, to run for presidency because you’re like a bug in front of tractor.” Hundreds of opposition activists have reportedly been arrested, among them the president’s main challengers. “I understood that I’m not ready to lead the country because I’m not economist. I’m not a politician. So I promised that I will be president no more than half a year, just to organize new elections, that’s it.” [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “During all this election campaign, I had a lot of moments when I wanted to step away because I was frightened.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “I got telephone call from unknown person who told me that, if I continue to run this campaign, I will be jailed and my children will be put in orphanage. And the next city, it was Minsk. About 60,000 people came. And, at that very moment, I understood that I can’t step away.” ”(CHANTING) Sveta! Sveta! Sveta! Sveta! Sveta!” [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “So many people just came to show that they are with me. They are tired to live under pressure. They don’t want this dictator anymore. We had a lot of observers at every polling station. And we saw that the majority voted with me. Till the end, there was a tiny hope that they will count honestly. But it was so tiny that it just disappeared.” NARRATOR: [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “Official result was 80% for Mr. Lukashenko and 10% for me. He stole all the people’s voices. 100,000 of Belarusian people went out for peaceful demonstrations.” [GUNFIRE] “Police just was going around and beating and beated and beated all of them. People were just beaten so hard. Thousands have been imprisoned, beaten, and tortured.” NARRATOR: [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “This footage was recorded by a Belarusian journalist who was beaten on the streets and then became a patient in this hospital in Minsk. The ward is full of so many different people with the exact same injuries and very similar stories.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “And some of these patients were not even protesters. One patient was just going to buy vinegar at his local shop. Even worse, some protesters said they were raped.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “This is what Lukashenko does to his own people.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “After the elections, I had to leave Belarus.” Belarusian opposition leader has been filmed speaking under duress. Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country. “At that moment, I had to think about family, about husband. I was ready to step away because it was difficult to accept this violence. So I really was ready to give up. Only, Belarusian people didn’t give me chance to step away. I became like a symbol of freedom.” ”(CHANTING) Sveta! Sveta! Sveta!” “I started to meet with the leaders of different countries.” “Honorable members of the European Parliament—” “It is very important that people around the world are talking about us.” “We wish you all strength and persistence in the struggle for democracy.” “Authorities were sure that such violence will calm down people. But vice versa happened.” [? [CROWDS CHANTING] ?] – [CHANTING IN RUSSIAN] “There were people of different professions, of different ages.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “Old people, usually, is considered to be electorate of Mr. Lukashenko. But, at last, they understood. Even those people who were still apolitical— workers who work in factories, they are usually apolitical— they started strikes.” – [PROTESTING IN RUSSIAN] “It’s unbelievable for Belarus. I always considered myself to be a weak woman. But when my fate laughed at me, when it put me in such obstacles that I had to look for the strength, maybe this strength already was inside of me. You know, the same as me, I’m sure every person has strength in himself or herself. They just didn’t know they have this strength because we were so frightened by one person. But now they woke up. This revolution is not over. To the international community, we need new and fair elections. They can be run by the OSCE. And we need an investigation into the human rights abuses to my people who have been on the streets for weeks.” [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “Our revolution is not geopolitical. It’s not a pro-Russian revolution nor [? pro-European-Union ?] revolution. It is a democratic revolution. And I want my husband back.” [MUSIC PLAYING]
And the world has united around us. Sometimes Belarus — as I discovered when meeting the leaders of 31 countries — is one of the few subjects on which a country’s political groups agree. Now we’re calling for a high-level international conference to develop a road map for a peaceful and negotiated way out of the crisis. Mr. Lukashenko, of course, may try to obstruct such efforts. But we believe it’s possible, through holding a free and fair election under international observation in the next six months.
As I emphasized in my recent meetings with President Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, democratic countries have a moral obligation to support us: Belarus is on the front line of the struggle between autocracy and democracy. International support has been heartening, but more can be done. We want the democratic community to develop and expand aid programs — such as Denmark’s support for independent media and Germany’s funding for students — for Belarusian civil society.
And the regime must be targeted. We welcome the sanctions announced by the European Union and the United States on the regime’s enterprises and individuals funding or carrying out repression: It’s now crucial to remove any loopholes Mr. Lukashenko and his allies may exploit. The regime should also be cut off from international funding coming from the United Nations, the World Bank or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development — and denied access to financial support from the International Monetary Fund. What’s more, the dictatorship in Belarus should be brought before international courts to answer for its crimes.
After all, it’s not just about Belarus. The regime has become a security problem for all of Europe. In May, in an act of wanton aggression, the regime forced the landing of a European plane to capture a journalist. Just this month, a Belarusian community leader was found hanged in Kyiv. Unless we contain the bandit at large in the middle of Europe, no European citizen is safe.
The regime, to be sure, could try to buy time for itself — by imitating reform and trying to trade the release of political prisoners for a softening of sanctions, as some state diplomats have suggested. The world should not be fooled. Instead, through strong and united support, the democratic nations across the globe can help Belarus step out of dictatorship and into freedom.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) is a Belarusian opposition leader.
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