1 / 4Photo: Mikaela Landeström/TT
She won the election. Yet the dictator remains. Now some want to call Svetlana Tikhanovskaya the president of Belarus. But that’s the wrong focus, she thinks.
– I don’t want to waste my energy on that, we have so many other problems, says Tichanovskaja to TT.
The question is justified. Tikhanovskaya has been forced to flee Belarus and set up a base in Lithuania. Her organization increasingly resembles a government in exile.
The latest pressing issue concerns passports. Belarus’ regime announced last week that citizens in exile will no longer be able to renew their passports at the country’s embassies. So Tikhanovskaya is now seeking support from allies in Europe to be able to issue a new type of ID paper.
It is no small problem – half a million Belarusians have fled the country and would become “stateless” without ID documents. Tikhanovskaya says it’s also about dignity.
– If a person cannot renew their passport, the only way out today is to apply for asylum. We don’t want to be refugees. We don’t want to be a burden. So now we are trying to find a solution to this, she says in an interview with TT in connection with meetings with Swedish ministers in Stockholm this week.
Tikhanovskaya is a teacher and interpreter, who was thrown into the global spotlight when her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in the spring of 2020. He is a well-known blogger and democracy activist who had intended to challenge the country’s leader Aleksandr Lukashenko in the presidential election. Instead, 41-year-old Tikhanovskij was thrown into prison. The then 38-year-old wife made the decision to run in his place – with the hope of winning the election and then pardoning both her husband and all other political prisoners.
The election on 9 August 2020 was condemned by the outside world as rigged. And the official result was what was expected: a landslide victory for the dictatorial Lukashenko, while Tikhanovskaya had to settle for 10 percent.
But according to the opposition, she rather got 60-70 percent of the votes. And in the years since then, more and more people have joined the view that it is Tikhanovskaya who is the rightful leader of Belarus. Some even call her president – a title that brings mixed feelings.
– Yes, many people want to describe me as “president-elect”, says Tikhanovskaya, and seems to agree to some extent.
– It means a person who won the election but cannot fulfill his mandate.
She screws up, but talks quickly and intensely.
– I have received a lot of pressure, “you must call yourself president” and such. But I answer that I am not going to spend energy on getting other countries to call me president or to recognize this or that. I don’t want to waste my energy on it.
She would rather point to the other side of the coin.
– The important thing is rather to admit that Lukashenko is not legitimate. That he has no right to represent our country or stand for measures to help Belarusians.
Tikhanovskaya mentions a discouraging example. In 2019, Juan Guaidó was named by the opposition and parts of the outside world as the rightful president of Venezuela. But since he had no real power, he quickly became irrelevant, and a few years later was voted out as leader even by his own people.
– We have that fresh in our memory. He was recognized – and then?
Instead, Tikhanovskaya tries to work as concretely as possible.
– I have no keys to open Belarus prisons. I cannot stop Belarus’ role in the Ukraine war. But we can issue documents, based on the old passports, confirming the citizenship of Belarusians.
Carry the portrait with you
TT: Are you an optimist?
– I absolutely am, Tikhanovskaya exclaims, but describes it as a survival strategy:
– I have neither the right nor the opportunity to say: oh, it’s hopeless, I’m going back to my old life.
She quickly looks down at the slightly tattered binder she always carries with her, with her husband’s portrait on the cover. Sergei Tikhanovsky has not been heard from for six months, and she therefore has no idea how he is doing in prison.
– Our children grow up without their father. There are thousands of such broken families, thousands of people dying in the cells.
– I feel the same pain as many others who fought in 2020. But it can be converted into energy, to continue the fight.
Belarus is barely half the size of Sweden. The area of 207,600 square kilometers makes the country Europe’s 13th largest. The population is slightly smaller than Sweden’s, 9.3 million.
A century ago, Belarus became part of the Soviet Union, and even after independence in the early 1990s, the country has remained closely tied to its powerful neighbor Russia.
The country is ruled by the authoritarian Aleksandr Lukashenko. He won the presidential election in 1994 and has since over the years strengthened his power so that he has been referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”.
When Russia began its attempt to invade the whole of Ukraine at the beginning of last year, the forces also started from Belarus, which has a long border with Ukraine.
Belarus continues to play an important supporting role in Russian warfare, and Western sanctions have included Belarus as well.