Belarusian opposition leader calls for Irish help in ‘bringing dictator to justice’

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says president Alexander Lukashenko should be sanctioned

Belarussian Svetlana Tikhanovskaya earlier in the week when she visited her friends Henry and Marian Deane in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

Belarussian Svetlana Tikhanovskaya earlier in the week when she visited her friends Henry and Marian Deane in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

 

The exiled Belarusian opposition leader has appealed for “care and empathy” from the Irish public as her country fights for free and fair elections.

At an Oireachtas committee on Thursday, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya asked Ireland to bring international attention to the Belarusian situation by organising a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. Stronger co-ordinated sanctions are also needed, she added. Sanctions, she said, are the “only way to bring a dictator to justice”.

Ms Tikhanovskaya came to global attention last year after her husband Sergei was arrested and she assumed his role as the main opponent to President Alexander Lukashenko. She is in exile with her two children in Lithuania, while her husband remains in prison.

She pointed to the similarities between Belarus and Ireland, noting that both have endured a “tumultuous path to independence from an imposing neighbour”. The two nations have each sought to preserve their national languages and have had a “long path of fighting for our right to choose our future”, she said, adding that Belarusians have not yet reached their goal.

Her country has been “trapped in this nightmare” since last summer when the autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko refused to accept the result of an election, she said.

“Instead he decided to wage a war against his own people… In these trying times I am asking you to care,” she said.

It is not words but action that matter, she said: “Every little bit of care and empathy, and every small step helps because there are millions of us and there will be millions of steps,” she said.

‘Free and fair elections’

Despite constant repression, many Belarusians find ways to protest with the goal of achieving free and fair elections, she said, and 60,000 people have joined the movement and are preparing a nationwide strike.

Irish people helped the Belarusians following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and they can help now, she said. Ms Tikhanovskaya called on “every Irish person” to talk about Belarusian activists and to write a letter to a political prisoner to show there is “someone far away who cares”. She asked Irish charities to accept oppressed children, and she urged the Irish government to increase support for Belarusian civil society.

Belarusian president Lukashenko feels a sense of “impunity”, which is why he felt able to force down a Ryanair flight to seize a journalist on board, she said.

The opposition leader met with Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney on Thursday, after which Mr Martin tweeted that Ireland and the European Union “will continue to show unwavering support for democracy and freedom in Belarus”. Earlier Mr Coveney said the people of Ireland continue to stand with the people of Belarus in “their struggle to exercise their fundamental democratic and human rights”.

Amid her call to action Ms Tikhanovskaya spoke fondly of being “smothered with kisses and hugs” upon returning to Co Tipperary where she had spent summers in the 1990s as part of a project to help children from areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster.

“With tears on my cheeks I recalled how deeply my Irish family cared about me and the other girls and kids… My story is just one of many thousands of human stories that bring Belarus and Ireland closer,” she said.