Last year upended the plans of most of humanity. But few saw expectation and reality diverge quite so sharply, and with such far-reaching consequences, as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
The former language teacher from southern Belarus began 2020 with the modest aim of returning to work after a decade at home caring for her children, and waiting for her husband Sergei, a YouTube activist and critic of Belarus’s despotic leader Alexander Lukashenko, to be freed from prison.
She ended it in exile in Lithuania, after a tumultuous eight months in which she ran for president in her husband’s stead; won huge numbers of supporters; and was then forced from her homeland by the security services after challenging Lukashenko’s implausible claims of a landslide victory. Along the way, the 38-year-old with no previous political experience has become the face of the most serious challenge Lukashenko has encountered in his oppressive 26-year rule, inspiring protests that, at their peak, brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of one of Europe’s most tightly controlled societies.
“I was sure that in September I would start work as a teacher, because I already had a trial period in one company,” she recalls. “I knew that Sergei was going to be involved in [politics] and I was ready to support him. I knew what it is in our country to be in a political position, and I had prepared myself that maybe he would be jailed for 15 days, 10 days periodically . . . But we have what we have.”
We are meeting on a bitterly cold December day in the glass-and-steel office block in Vilnius that became Tikhanovskaya’s base after she was forced abroad in August. Outside, slabs of ice are gliding slowly round a bend in the Neris, which separates us from the spires and cupolas of Vilnius’s old town. Inside, a gaggle of mostly young Belarusian aides are poring over laptops while an inquisitive micro-dog makes enthusiastic lengths of the office.
Coronavirus has closed the restaurants that dot the Lithuanian capital. So Gaspar’s, an eatery run by an Indian-Belarusian couple, has — for free, as a token of support for Tikhanovskaya — rustled up a meal. As I walk into the glass-fronted meeting room where our lunch is to take place, the starter and dessert are already waiting. So is Tikhanovskaya, sporting a black wide-sleeved dress and matching boots, and looking remarkably fresh-faced for someone who has spent the last eight months at the sharp end of the struggle against Lukashenko’s regime.
She greets me with a slight smile and, before I realise, has poured us both glasses of water and issued me my starter: smoked chicken and potatoes in a thin wrap, topped with pickled radishes, bathed in a mildly spicy sauce. Tikhanovskaya declares herself an omnivore and tucks in. I follow suit, and turn the conversation to her decision to run against Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for all but three of the 29 years since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Tikhanovskaya says that growing up she was “never” interested in politics. Born in the twilight of the USSR, the daughter of a cook and a lorry driver, she spent her early years in Mikashevichy — one of the parts of Belarus affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She remembers little of the event, but, like other children from the areas affected by the fallout, took part in a programme that took them to Ireland for recuperation. “Maybe it is because it was the first country I visited . . . but Ireland is still my first love,” she says.
At school, she was a good student, graduating with a gold medal before studying English in Mazyr. Was that where she met Sergei? “At a disco”, she confirms with a smile. They married in 2004, and Tikhanovskaya began teaching English. But after their first child, Korney, was born with hearing problems, she put her work on hold to devote herself to his care.
Sergei’s activities, meanwhile, were gaining more attention. In 2019, he launched a YouTube channel documenting the difficulties of ordinary Belarusians under Lukashenko. By May last year it had nearly 140,000 subscribers. Tikhanovskaya says she worried as the authorities became more “repressive” towards him, tailing him as he drove around the country. But she never had any intention of getting involved herself.
That changed after Sergei was detained again in May — just as he announced his intention to run for president — and it became clear that he would not be allowed to take part in the election. Without discussing the idea with anyone, Tikhanovskaya put her own name forward to the electoral commission. “I thought: I have to support him. I have to do something just for him to know in jail that everything that he is doing is important for me as well,” she recalls, as I polish off my chicken wrap.
“I was 100 per cent sure they would reject me, because they know I’m his wife . . . If I had known they would accept me, maybe I would have thought again.” So why did the regime let her run? “To laugh at me,” she replies without missing a beat. “They were sure I was a nobody, that I would be the weakest candidate.”
If the regime was laughing, it soon stopped. Amid widespread anger at Lukashenko’s botched response to the pandemic, support for several opposition candidates, including Tikhanovskaya, former banker Viktor Babariko and former diplomat Valery Tsepkalo, was growing. Shortly before Tikhanovskaya finished collecting the 100,000 signatures she needed to confirm her participation in the election, she got a call from an unknown number. If she continued, a voice warned, she would be jailed. Her two children, aged five and 10, would be put in an orphanage.
Tikhanovskaya considered withdrawing, and began making plans to evacuate her children. But friends and family persuaded her to fight on. “Every morning, I woke up so exhausted with all this fear inside me, with all this responsibility,” she says. “But I had to remember: so many people are scared . . . I don’t have the right to step away.”
Babariko and Tsepkalo were barred from running. In an effort to unite the opposition vote, their campaigns endorsed Tikhanovskaya. Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika, and Babariko’s campaign manager, Maria Kolesnikova, campaigned with Tikhanovskaya, and the three young women’s platform of releasing political prisoners and holding fresh, free elections struck a chord. Thousands, and then tens of thousands, of Belarusians flocked to support them. A country that had known only one leader for a quarter of a century was imagining a future in which he was finally replaced.
Lukashenko was not. Despite the evident support for Tikhanovskaya, he claimed 80 per cent of the vote. When Tikhanovskaya’s supporters took to the streets to protest, he launched a savage crackdown. And when Tikhanovskaya went to the electoral commission to file an official complaint, she was detained for three hours by the security services who gave her a grim choice: issue a statement urging her supporters to recognise Lukashenko’s claim of victory, and then join her children in exile; or go to jail.
I ask what those three hours were like but Tikhanovskaya, for the only time in our lunch, is reluctant to give much detail. “Of course, I made the decision to go to my children, because everything was so shocking for me. I was under such pressure at that moment,” she says, with a spasm of emotion. “They are really good psychologists, these people. They know how to influence you . . . I don’t want to tell you all the peculiarities of all this, because my husband is still in jail.”
Tikhanovskaya arrived in Lithuania tormented by her decision. “I was so stressed. I couldn’t find a place for myself,” she says. Fearing that her compatriots would feel she had “betrayed” them, she made a video explaining that she had gone to be with her children. But rather than criticism, the video elicited a torrent of messages of support. “I was ready to step away, but after I had read all those messages, I realised: You can’t stop now.”
One of Tikhanovskaya’s aides walks in with the main course: black cod, surrounded by a cheesy sauce with grilled vegetables. Tikhanovskaya is still only halfway through her starter. So she can catch up, I embark on a story about trying pigs’ ears in Minsk. Tikhanovskaya listens politely, but my culinary adventures do not entirely seem to have captured her imagination, and so I retreat to the topic of the summer protests.
Lukashenko’s model combined a Soviet-style command economy, which delivered relative stability and rising wages, with a political system in which he was unchallenged. In the 1990s, as neighbouring Russia and Ukraine were engulfed by a whirlwind transition to capitalism, stability had a certain appeal. But over time the flaws in the model became glaringly clear: Belarus’s economy was stagnating, and Lukashenko’s authoritarianism was increasingly rampant. He had faced protests before, notably in 2006 and 2010, but not on this scale. So what made 2020 different?
Tikhanovskaya reels off a list of factors. One, she says with pride, was her husband’s YouTube programmes. Lukashenko had also lost contact with the concerns of ordinary Belarusians, and didn’t understand the mobilising power of the internet: “He lived somewhere in the 90s,” she says.
Lukashenko compounded this with an erratic response to the pandemic. As other countries locked down, he dismissed the virus as a “psychosis”, suggested drinking vodka as an antidote, and blamed victims for poor diets. Finally, there was generational change. “Our parents are people of the Soviet Union. They got used to being ruled, to being told what to do or what not,” she concludes. “[But the younger generation] have the opportunity to watch YouTube or to travel on their own in Europe. They can see how other people live.”
For a brief moment in August, it looked as if Lukashenko’s days might be numbered. But as winter sets in, he has managed to cling on. One reason is a brutal crackdown, during which his security services have used stun-grenades, water cannons, beatings and tens of thousands of detentions. Another was support from Russian president Vladimir Putin. Tikhanovskaya adds a third: Belarusian society also has to learn to demand its rights. “It will take time for people,” she says. “Our people don’t realise their strength.”
It feels like Tikhanovskaya is going through a similar process. When I ask how the year has changed her, she says, matter of factly, that “the main fact about me that has changed in my mind is that I’m much stronger than I thought”. She insists that she would not run herself if Belarus did hold free elections: first, because she has promised not to; second, because she thinks that given the problems facing Belarus someone with an economic background would be better-placed. “I want to study for a while . . . I think something about human rights,” she responds when I ask what she plans to do once her time leading Belarus’s democratic forces is over. “I’m sure I can be useful in this.”
Pylimo g. 23-3, Vilnius, Lithuania
Starter: Smoked chicken with pickled radish x2
Main: Asian-style grilled black cod with seasonal vegetables x2
Dessert: White chocolate and raspberry mousse x2
TOTAL (inc service): Free
For now though, she remains very much involved. Since arriving in Vilnius, she has criss-crossed Europe and met leaders such as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. So what should the EU be doing?
Tikhanovskaya says replacing Lukashenko is Belarusians’ responsibility. But she is clearly frustrated with the glacial nature of the EU’s response. The bloc has imposed sanctions, but Tikhanovskaya argues they need to be much broader: not just on top officials, but on the rank and file facilitating Lukashenko’s vicious crackdown; and also on the state-owned companies propping up his regime. “There is so much evidence of atrocities. So much evidence of torture in Belarus. That’s why you have to take a stand, to be vocal,” she insists, becoming animated. “You declare yourself to be democratic countries. You promise to stand for human rights. So do this!”
And what about Russia? Putin’s offer in late August to send support if protests against Lukashenko turned violent played a key part in shoring up his wobbling regime. But since then, the signals from the Kremlin have been mixed. Tikhanovskaya picks up her phone and dials a number. For a second I wonder if she is calling someone to join the discussion, but instead an aide emerges bearing dessert spoons, and takes our orders for cappuccinos. “I think Russia supports Lukashenko out of habit,” she resumes, as I take a mouthful of the pudding, a delicious white chocolate mousse.
No one from the Kremlin has met Tikhanovskaya. But she stresses that she wants good relations with Belarus’s biggest neighbour. “We have a very strong trade relationship, and we want this relationship to stay the same or maybe even tighten,” she says. “But it’s up to the Belarusian people to decide. It’s not up to Lukashenko or up to one person.” The Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko’s regime, she continues, underscoring her point, is souring Belarusians’ view of Moscow. “It’s very uncomfortable for Putin to deal with a bankrupt politician,” she says. “[Russia should] stop supporting him financially . . . Without financial help, Lukashenko will not last long.”
Dusk has fallen, and Tikhanovskaya’s aides are beginning to hover. “You know where I am going now?” she asks, semi-rhetorically. “To collect my children from kindergarten and school.” I take the hint and drain the last of my coffee. As we prepare to go, I return to Belarus’s future. Has Lukashenko ridden out the storm? Or will the processes set in train during 2020 finally bring him down?
Tikhanovskaya is emphatic. The past year has changed Belarus “absolutely”. “Look, [Lukashenko] can call himself president. He can think he’s in power for a while, because it’s a really tough fight [to get rid of him],” she says. “But he’s nobody for people . . . It’s impossible [for us] to wake up and think: ‘OK . . . so many people are in jail, so many people have been raped and tortured and punished. I’m going to live the same way that I lived before.’ No.”
James Shotter is the FT’s central Europe correspondent
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