Roscrea on agenda for Belarusian pro-democracy leader’s return to Ireland

Exiled Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to meet Government officials as Minsk’s crackdown on critics continues

Rare is the foreign politician whose visit to Ireland combines talks with top Government officials and a trip to Knockshegowna Hill in Co Tipperary.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarus's exiled opposition leader, often picnicked on the hill during three summers spent in nearby Roscrea, and hopes to spend time there with the local family who hosted her when she comes back to Ireland next week.

She last saw Henry Deane and his family 17 years ago, and returns as the unlikely figurehead of a pro-democracy movement that vows to end the bloody and autocratic rule of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus's president since 1994.

She plunged into politics last year by replacing her jailed husband in a presidential election that the west is sure she won. In the ensuing police crackdown on huge protests against Lukashenko and the rigged vote, several people were killed, hundreds injured and 35,000 detained; Tikhanovskaya sent her two children to safety in neighbouring Lithuania, and later joined them to escape threats from the regime.


Russian support helped Lukashenko weather the initial storm, but Belarus now faces a new wave of western sanctions for diverting a Ryanair jet to Minsk so that an opposition activist on board could be arrested – an act that Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney described as "state-sponsored aviation piracy" and the airline compared to a "hijacking".

“Ireland is a country affected by this Ryanair case, it is involved, so it can initiate [legal] proceedings against the regime. This will be one of the main topics of our discussions,” says Tikhanovskaya, who is expected to meet Coveney during a visit that will start next Tuesday.

“And we cannot talk about the Ryanair case separately from all the torture and the repressions that are taking place in Belarus. All this is a result of Lukashenko’s feeling of impunity,” she says from her office in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

I haven't felt safe since the day I gave my [candidate's] documents to the election commission last year

UN special rapporteur Anais Marin this week urged Lukashenko (66) to free about 530 Belarusians whom rights groups consider to be political prisoners, and described the arrest of opposition figure Roman Protasevich on the diverted Ryanair flight as "a form of purge that recalls those practised by totalitarian states".

Minsk cited a fake bomb threat in telling the plane to land as it flew from Greece to Lithuania, and Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, subsequently "confessed" to various crimes on Belarusian state television, in statements that their supporters say were clearly scripted and forced.

Protasevich’s parents fear he was tortured by Lukashenko’s notorious security service – still called the KGB – and the activist’s fate was particularly chilling for Tikhanovskaya, who had met him a week earlier in Athens before returning to Vilnius with Ryanair, and whose husband, Sergei, has been in jail for 14 months.

“I haven’t felt safe since the day I gave my [candidate’s] documents to the election commission last year. But after this incident, of course we think twice about our travel plans,” she says.

“We know we are targets of the regime, me and all of my team and all those activists who have relocated from Belarus. Thanks to the Lithuanian government I personally have security around me, but the rest of my people do not,” she explains.

"We have to be very careful and to know where to go if we feel we are being followed. The nearer you are to Belarus, the closer are the hands of the regime – there are KGB officers in Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. "

Tikhanovskaya expects her husband – who is on trial for inciting unrest – to receive a similar sentence to the 14-year jail term handed down this week to Viktor Babariko, another opposition figure who was arrested last spring to stop him taking on Lukashenko at the ballot box.

“I’ve only been allowed to speak to Sergei once by telephone. We are writing him letters, me and the children, but he only gets maybe 10 per cent of them. This is another way they demoralise prisoners,” she says.

“But he is a strong person and really motivated... I think he faces years in jail, like Babariko, but we don’t need to focus on this. We need to focus on how to free all these people.”

Tikhanovskaya (38) grew up in a small town in southern Belarus, studied to be a teacher and then worked as an interpreter and a secretary while raising two children with Sergei, a businessman whose anger at poverty and stifling bureaucracy drove him to challenge Lukashenko.

This is, first of all, a political visit for me... but it is also a visit to a beloved country

She visited Ireland through a programme to help people from areas affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and says her younger self “would have laughed” at the notion that she would one day return as a politician.

“Even a year ago I wouldn’t have believed this, never mind 17 years ago,” she says.

“I don’t feel like a politician even now... but I feel a responsibility to bring my country to new elections. It is my task – and the task of the whole population – and then I can return to a normal life. I dream of a moment when my life will not be a fight,” she explains.

“But Belarusian people do not have an option to give up. How is it possible to live in a country where you are not safe, where you are scared of being fired every day [for political reasons], kidnapped and put in prison?”

Tikhanovskaya believes the regime’s brutality towards peaceful protesters has changed Belarusians forever, and a nation previously seen by its neighbours as passive and long-suffering “will not forget all those people who have been tortured and jailed”.

She is also sure that Belarusians will remember how the Kremlin sided with Lukashenko, offering him political, financial and security support and helping him portray the pro-democracy movement as a creation of hostile western powers.

"Russia supported the regime, which means Russia supported violence and torture in Belarus," she says, while adding that Kremlin backing for Lukashenko is not a show of faith in the former collective farm boss, but a delaying tactic "until [Moscow] prepares its own candidate [to take over] or works out its own scenario".

“But this is not a Russian question, it is a question for the Belarusian people,” she insists.

“It would be much wiser for Russia to start talking to our civil society and democratic forces. We need to make these connections, because there will be changes. The regime is not eternal and we will always be neighbours. It would be good for our countries to build new and transparent relations.”

The changes in Belarus and in Tikhanovskaya’s own life will be driven home by her return to Ireland, a country she first visited at the age of 14 and which showed her that “there were countries where people could enjoy their life instead of just surviving”.

“I’m so happy to have a chance to go back. I’ve visited a lot of countries in the last year but none gave me memories like Ireland,” she says.

“I hope to have time to see my host family in Roscrea, and then there is Knockshegowna Hill that we visited almost every day. I want to visit this place that is so full of memories.

“Of course, this is, first of all, a political visit for me... but it is also a visit to a beloved country.”