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Exiled opposition leader doesn't want the world to forget about oppression in Belarus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

She's jet-lagged and on just four hours' sleep. But today, as I meet again with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the pro-democracy movement in Belarus...

SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Hi.

KELLY: Hi. Good morning.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Good morning.

KELLY: ...She holds a weary, yet steely expression on her face. In front of her sits a binder with a massive photo of another face on the front - that of her husband, Sergei, who's been imprisoned in Belarus since 2020.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Time to time, you feel exhausted. You feel overstressed. Sometimes you think you don't have normal strength - you know? - to continue. But I look into his eyes. I remember that he doesn't have opportunity, you know, to do anything at all. And just - it's like this pain transforms into energy, and you wake up and go and fight.

KELLY: Her fight to end political persecution in her home country is what brings her again to Washington, nearly three years after she challenged authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko in the Belarusian presidential election and accused him of rigging the vote. Since then, Lukashenko has waged a brutal crackdown on opposition figures. Some 1,400 are in prison. Others, like Tsikhanouskaya, are in exile. She would face at least 15 years in prison herself were she to return home. This month, a court in Belarus tried her in absentia. She was convicted of treason and other crimes.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I have to say that this sentence doesn't mean anything to me because it doesn't have anything to do with justice.

KELLY: Belarus, a former Soviet republic, has long been strategically aligned with Russia. So now, as Tsikhanouskaya explained to me today, the stakes for opposing Lukashenko are even higher.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Now people are getting awful sentences - 5, 10, 15, even 20 years in jail just for opposing the regime. And those people who are supporting Ukrainians, for example, are also considered to be enemies of this regime. Like, a young guy who donated 20 euros for Ukrainian army was sentenced to five years. I'm sure that all our political prisoners will be released one day, but now we have to accumulate our strength, accumulate international assistance, you know, to - not just to fight, but to win this fight.

KELLY: Your country, Belarus, and Ukraine are neighbors. Your country is just to the north of Ukraine. And Belarus has not sent troops to Ukraine, but has supported Russia in other ways, including allowing Russian troops to be based in Belarus. How closely tied are the futures of your country and Ukraine? Like, how much will how this war eventually ends in Ukraine determine the future of your country?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So first of all, I ask critic (ph) world to distinguish between Belarusian regime and Belarusian people. This is Belarusian regime who provided our territory for Russian troops to attack Ukraine. It's Lukashenko and his thugs who are providing facilities and infrastructure and giving territory for Russian military drills. And he became full accomplice to Putin in this war, and he has to be at full responsibility for this.

But of course, the outcome of the war in Ukraine might influence the situation in Belarus because, now, Lukashenko fully relies on Putin's political and economical support. And when Ukraine wins, Putin will be weakened. And hence, Lukashenko will be weakened. But also, I think that changes in Belarus might come even earlier than the war in Ukraine is over, but we need more attention. We need more assistance. We need more pressure from our international partners, you know, to speak out on our independency and to bring Lukashenko to accountability.

KELLY: And that's - I'm speaking to you here in Washington today. What are - who are you here to meet? What are you here to ask for, specifically?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So I came here on invitation of the Congress. Also, I will...

KELLY: Who invited you?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I will meet with the speaker of the House and also representatives and senators who are members of the Belarusian caucus here. Also, I will meet officials from the State Department to discuss the strategy for Belarus because now we see that Belarus is overlooked. And, you know, it seems that it's left for one day later - you know, let's deal with Ukraine at first, and then we'll return to Belarus. But the fate of Ukraine and fate of Belarus are interconnected, and there will be no peace and security in the region until Belarus is free. So now we are asking our partners to demand withdrawal of Russian troops not only from Ukraine, but also from Belarus.

KELLY: On that point, how would that work? What would that look like? I mean, the U.S. is not in Belarus to be able to kick Russian troops out. So what exactly are you asking for?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yes, but U.S. is not in Ukraine as well, but they are huge supporters of Ukrainians in this war. So we are asking to create multiple points of the pressure on the regime through sanctions, through political isolation and to increase assistance to Belarusian people who are fighting to this regime because dictators percept the silence as impunity, you know? They feel free to act as they want and only when they see that democratic countries are united in their demands - in their decisions. So it threatens dictators.

KELLY: A personal question, if I may - the last time I interviewed you was 2021, and you told me you were struggling to explain to your older child - your son - where his father was - his father being your husband, Sergei, who was the first member of the family to run for president of Belarus and was imprisoned and remains in prison. What is the conversation with your son like now?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Of course, now, my older son and younger daughter, who is 7 now, know the truth, of course, because I had to explain because they are writing letters to their daddy. And it's very important for me that, you know, my husband feels the presence of the children in his life at the moment. From their letters, he knows that his younger daughter is starting to write, you know? I ask her to draw pictures with bright colors because I explain that everything is dull around him - gray walls. He doesn't see blue sky, you know? Just remind him that - what colors exist.

KELLY: What does your daughter draw for him?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Usually, she draws pictures where all the members of our family are present. You know, even if we are on vacation, for example - you know, he's not with us, but she's drawing that he is swimming with us, that he's, like, on the plane with us because I'm sure that she pretends that he's nearby.

KELLY: And what about you? Can you speak to him by phone? When was the last time you heard your husband's voice?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: It was autumn 2020. Since then, I didn't have opportunity to communicate. The only chance to send my love to him is through a lawyer, who visits him once a week. Just - as we call, the lawyers now are very expensive postmen because they, you know, they deliver...

KELLY: (Laughter).

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah, this is our reality. And, you know, just - it's our everyday life, and I really want - I don't want the world to forget about what's going on in Belarus. You know, this fight for freedom is not a local one. It's the, like, moral obligation of all the countries who - especially powerful countries - and not to be - to protect those who are on the difficult path for changes.

KELLY: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Thank you.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya of Belarus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.