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Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: ‘I’ve always said that Ireland is in my heart, all the time’

Belarusian pro-democracy leader rallies support on return to Ireland, where she will receive Tipperary award

Exiled Belarusian pro-democracy leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has urged the world not to forget about her nation’s struggle against political oppression and Russian domination.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya was speaking as she arrived in Ireland to collect the Tipperary International Peace Award.

After spending several summer holidays in Co Tipperary during her youth, Ms Tsikhanouskaya returns to receive recognition of her fight for democracy in Belarus, where she is widely believed to have beaten veteran dictator Alexander Lukashenko in a 2020 presidential election.

Mr Lukashenko refused to accept defeat after the election and launched a brutal crackdown on opposition protests, in which several people were killed, hundreds hurt, and thousands detained. Many people were forced to flee the country, including Ms Tsikhanouskaya and her children, who found safety in neighbouring Lithuania.


Mr Lukashenko propped up his regime by moving closer to Russia and allowing its forces to launch attacks from Belarus on neighbouring Ukraine, where Europe’s biggest war since 1945 has overshadowed the growing tyranny endured by millions of Belarusians.

Victory for Ukraine is “extremely important”, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said, “because Ukraine and Belarus are facing the same enemy – the imperialistic ambitions of Russia”.

“Russia does not accept that Ukraine and Belarus can choose their own ways of development,” she told The Irish Times on Monday.

“Now in Ukraine, its fate is being decided on the battlefield. It is almost the same in Belarus – our future is decided by our underground resistance and by our resistance outside the country, from all those who had to flee and are fighting against the regime and want to bring democracy to Belarus.”

Rights groups say the Lukashenko regime is holding about 1,500 political prisoners, including Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s husband Syarhei Tsikhanouski, whom she replaced on the ballot paper for the 2020 vote when he was detained on politically motivated charges. He was later sentenced to 18 years in jail for “organising mass unrest” and “fuelling social enmity”.

According to Ms Tsikhanouskaya, the actual number of Belarusians imprisoned for opposing Mr Lukashenko is much larger – about 5,000 people. She said that the number continues to grow as authorities dole out jail terms to anyone caught criticising the country’s ruler of almost 30 years, or his alliance with Russia and his support for its invasion of Ukraine.

“People know the consequences of speaking out – years in prison – but they do this because the fates of Ukraine and Belarus are intertwined,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said.

“The Belarusian situation is a little bit overlooked at the moment because all the focus and attention is on Ukraine – and we fully support this.

“We don’t want to take attention from Ukraine, because there will be no free Belarus without a free Ukraine, but also vice versa – there will be no peace in our region while Lukashenko is there.”

Mr Lukashenko claims to need closer defence ties with Russia to protect his state of nine million people from a potential attack by pro-Western Ukraine or Nato states Poland and Lithuania, which also border Belarus.

Russian president Vladimir Putin announced in March that he would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, and Mr Lukashenko then said he would also allow Moscow to place intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles in his country if the security situation demanded it.

“It is Lukashenko’s dream to have nuclear weapons. And we understand that dictators might do anything to survive… so it’s very important to stop this deployment,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said of a plan which “further subjugates Belarus to Russia’s illegal control”.

“Lukashenko is giving our independence away, piece by piece, every day. What is happening in Belarus is a ‘creeping’ or ‘hybrid’ occupation.

“We feel the presence of Russia in every sphere – in the military, the economy, the media – and this possible deployment of Russian nuclear weapons is extremely dangerous for our country.

“Even after [political] changes in Belarus, it will be so hard to get rid of these nuclear weapons.

“This is happening against the will of the Belarusian people… The very existence of our [sovereign] country is at stake, but not much can be done inside the country because of constant repressions.”

The relentless attack on dissent in Belarus makes the international action co-ordinated by Ms Tsikhanouskaya and her allies vital to the country’s hopes for democracy.

She wants the West to impose tougher sanctions on pro-regime businesses and entrepreneurs, to show members of the Belarusian elite “that there is no future with Lukashenko” and to ensure that officials know that “they will have to answer for their crimes” against the people.

Mr Lukashenko signed a law in March to make the death penalty applicable to officials and army servicemen convicted of high treason, in what Ms Tsikhanouskaya sees as a sign of his growing fear that regime insiders could turn against him – and an insight into why he has not ordered the Belarusian armed forces to fight alongside Russia in Ukraine.

“The overwhelming majority of Belarusians don’t support the war against Ukraine, and I believe it’s the same situation in the armed forces – if they are forced to move into Ukraine, many will lay down their weapons and surrender,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said.

“We notice that when there are successes on the battlefield for Ukraine, more people [from the regime] come to us with information. They are closely watching which way the wind is blowing and waiting to see all the time who will win.”

In meetings with President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and other senior officials this week, Ms Tsikhanouskaya is expected to discuss not only the situation in Belarus, but ways that Ireland can help its people – with one possibility being the provision of respite holidays to children of political prisoners jailed by the regime.

But first there is Tuesday’s award ceremony in Tipperary, which Ms Tsikhanouskaya hopes will be attended by the Deane family who hosted her for holidays in Roscrea.

“I’m so glad to be back in Ireland, you can’t even imagine,” she said. “I’ve always said that Ireland is in my heart, all the time, and I have special feelings for this country and its people.”