Now things have changed. Lukashenko’s 26-year rule looks shakier than ever after an August reelection campaign, another supposed victory with 80 percent of the vote and protests that have brought 200,000 to the streets. This time, his opponent was a 37-year-old English teacher, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who galvanized the opposition with a simple campaign message: change. Fearing for her life after the election, Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania, where she chatted with me over Zoom. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: You were a housewife and a mother. Your husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was not allowed to run for president and was put in jail in May. Then you decided to step forward and become a candidate. Was this difficult?
A: I had to study a lot in a short period of time about politics, about how to communicate with others, about this campaign.
Q: How did you get 100,000 people to sign up and endorse your candidacy so that you could register as a candidate?
A: At the start, I’m sure people came for my husband. He had found a lot of supporters. But when he was jailed, people told me they were inspired that I went to campaign.
Q: With Sergei in jail, how did you decide to run?
A: He was extremely involved in this movement, so [at first] I just went for love for my husband. Step by step, I got another sense when I understood that people were standing in long lines just to put their signatures. I continued only because I couldn’t betray all those people who believed in my husband and in me. I didn’t expect it would go so far. I was sure that the Central Election Commission would not register me, or maybe the authorities would find reasons not to let me go further. But they did not, and so I couldn’t stop.
Q: Originally, you said that you were running to have free and fair elections, not to be president. Recently you have been quoted as saying that you are willing to serve as president.
A: It’s a misunderstanding. I can’t serve as the permanent president. I will serve just for a couple of months to organize future free and fair elections in which I’m not going to participate.
Q: If people want to elect you, will you serve as president?
A: No, I’m not ready to be a permanent president. I’m ready to be a short-term president and to lead the country to new, real elections.
Q: What about your husband?
A: I think he will participate. He doesn’t know the whole picture in Belarus, because he’s been jailed for more than three months.
Q: You just met with the U.S. deputy secretary of state, Stephen Biegun. What did he ask you? What did you ask him?
A: The meeting was wonderful. I told them that we really appreciate the support the U.S. is conveying to our people and our country. I asked them to respect the sovereignty of Belarus as this dispute is really our internal affair. It’s not about geopolitics.
Q: President Lukashenko handled the coronavirus pandemic badly?
A: That was one of the most important reasons people lost trust in him: He didn’t take care of his people, and he said rude things from the TV screen during covid about people who were ill, about people who died because of covid. People couldn’t forgive him — they couldn’t bear such disrespect.
Q: Do you want the Lukashenko government to open a dialogue with you and other opposition members?
A: We have created a Coordination Council in Minsk, which is meant to be a bridge between the people and the authorities. A lot of famous people of Belarus are on the council.
Q: But there are no current talks?
A: No. We already see the pressure the authorities are putting on the council members. [Two key members were arrested Monday.] It’s the usual method of our authorities — to influence people through threats. But our people have changed, and we are not ready to live with these authorities anymore, with this president. We don’t want to be frightened anymore.
Q: When do you want to go home to Minsk?
A: I adore my country. I want to live at home. But I don’t feel safe there. So at the moment I can’t go back. I have to stay in Lithuania and to do my best here for my people.
Q: What happened in Minsk the night after the election, when you went to protest the results at the Central Election Commission? Reportedly, they took you aside, put you in a room for hours and forced you to make a video. You left the country that night.
A: I’m sorry, I’m not ready to talk about that night.
Q: The protests are ongoing. Are you afraid that Russian President Vladimir Putin will send in troops?
A: I don’t know what our so-called president has asked the president of Russia, but it will be horrible if the Russian president helps our so-called president.
Q: Have you seen defections from Belarus’s government or security services to the opposition?
A: Oh, yes. A lot of policemen and even some civil servants don’t want to serve this regime anymore. They take off their uniforms because they don’t support the person who gives these awful orders to beat people, to kill people.
Q: Is winning these people over part of your strategy?
A: We always call for coming to the side of light. Our policy is a peaceful policy. We call for policemen not to go against peaceful people. We lived under this fear for 26 years. It’s up to every person if he will step over his own fear and join the majority of the Belarusian people. Some people will never find the strength in themselves to step over this fear.
Q: That must be difficult to do: Civil servants who abandon the regime would lose their salaries — maybe even face arrest and jail. Look at you, with your husband in jail and your relatives in Belarus.
A: It is difficult, yes. But self-respect is much more important. . . . I’m afraid every single day. But every morning I step over my fears and move on, because I understand that I’m doing this for the sake of my children, for future generations, for all the people who are in Belarus now. Fears don’t disappear.
Q: Will Lukashenko agree to new elections?
A: He has to understand that people don’t want him. They are not ready to live with this president anymore.