The Irish Times view on exiled Belarus opposition leader’s return to Ireland

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya first visited Roscrea aged 12 in 1994, via a project to help children from areas affected by Chernobyl nuclear disaster

August 11th, 2020: Belarus's main opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya says she fled to Lithuania for the sake of her children, after two nights of violent protests following the contested re-election of Alexander Lukashenko. Video: Reuters

 

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s return to Ireland this week is a reminder of life in another Europe. Belarus’s exiled opposition leader first visited Roscrea as a 12-year-old in 1994, through a project to help children from areas affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; it was also the year that Alexander Lukashenko became president of her country.

Tikhanovskaya would visit Co Tipperary twice more, then study to be a teacher, work as a translator and a secretary, marry and have two children. Much in her life has changed over the last 27 years, during which Belarus’s western neighbours have modernised and joined the EU, but Lukashenko is still in power, his country has stagnated, and his rule has become more autocratic.

Tikhanovskaya says those summers in Ireland showed her that life did not have to be the often demeaning struggle that it was for many Belarusians – and recent events have only made it much worse for thousands of her compatriots. When Lukashenko launched the most brutal crackdown of his reign last year, 35,000 people were detained for attending peaceful rallies.

Extraordinary lengths

Rights groups say Belarus is still detaining more than 500 political prisoners – including Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei – and the regime has shown its readiness to go to extraordinary lengths to punish its enemies, even using a fake bomb threat to divert a Ryanair jet to Minsk in May so that activist Roman Protasevich could be taken off the airliner and arrested.

Tikhanovskaya hopes the Government and Ryanair will support international legal action against Belarus over the Protasevich incident, and that officials will reiterate Ireland’s backing for economic sanctions against the regime and for a push to free political prisoners. Doing so would add substance to often-vapid talk of defending the “European values”. At the same time, this State should signal its readiness to play a full part in EU efforts to help other ex-Soviet states such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova develop the kind of independent institutions and rule of law that are anathema to Lukashenko and his ilk.

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