Ms Tikhanovskaya meets with President Marcelo who gave her further sign that Portugal is behind the struggle against dictatorship in Belarus

Belarus opposition leader asks Portugal to support companies fleeing her country

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya believes Belarus’ destiny ‘deeply-related’ to that of Ukraine

On her two-day visit to Portugal, Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya appears to have had a three-pronged brief.

The 39-year-old, currently living in exile in Lithuania, arrived on Thursday on the invitation of foreign affairs minister João Gomes Cravinho, and went on to have a number of meetings with parliamentary figures – including President Marcelo – as well as giving a long interview with Lusa.

Her brief appears to have been to seek Portugal’s assurance that it will support Balarus citizens and businesses forced to leave Belarus as a result of the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko; support further sanctions against the regime – and support the opposition that has been fighting so hard since the elections of 2020 (which Tikhanovskaya actually won), to shake off the shackles of Belarus’ symbiotic relationship with Russia.

João Gomes Cravinho went on record yesterday to answer in the affirmative to all Ms Tikhanovskaya’s requests, while a series of tweets posted on her twitter page show that her welcome here was effusive.

“President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa confirmed that Portugal does not recognize Lukashenka & assured me of full support for our movement”, she wrote. “We discussed ways of helping Ukraine and possible solutions for Belarus. Keep sanctions strong, isolate the regime politically, don’t let up under pressure”.

Her visit also served to connect with “hundreds of Belarusians feeling repressions and war” who have decided to relocate to Lisbon. “With mayor Carlos Moedas we discussed migration and visa issues”, she tweeted.

Ms Tikhanovskaya’s visit came at a new turning point in the West’s efforts to support Ukraine as it is bombarded by the Russian military. NATO defence ministers met on Thursday in Brussels to discuss, among other matters, “support for Ukraine and other partners at risk”.

In interview with Lusa, Ms Tikhanovskaya said she could feel “something is changing and that there is no turning back”.

“The situation is changing, and the war in Ukraine is also changing, and various scenarios may arise in the development of the situation” she said. 

As the opposition leader explained: Belarus and Ukraine are fighting a “struggle on two fronts” because without freedom in one country there will be no freedom in the other.

“Before the start of the war in Ukraine we were fighting the regime in Belarus, but after the war we understood that we also had to support the Ukrainians, because the destinies of the two countries are deeply related, because without freedom in Ukraine there will be no freedom in Belarus,” she said.

“That is why we triggered an anti-war movement. Several activists sabotaged railway lines to prevent the shipment of Russian military hardware to Ukraine through Belarus and two battalions were organised to defend Ukraine,” she said. “So right now we are fighting on two fronts.”

As Lusa explains, “Tikhanovskaya claimed victory over Lukashenko in the 2020 elections and was forced to flee to neighbouring Lithuania, in the midst of a crackdown on massive protest demonstrations after unofficial results were released.

“The repression has never stopped in Belarus since 2020,” she told her interviewers. “Every day there is news of fresh arrests: until the anti-war demonstration on February 27 about 1,100 people had been arrested.”

“Many have been given heavy sentences and recently new laws have been passed, including the death penalty for attempted terrorism. Anyone can be charged with attempted terrorism and be subject to the death penalty. It is designed to terrify people.”

Since her rise to political prominence, Tikhanovskaya has made numerous trips to European capitals to consolidate her diplomatic network and seek solutions to the domestic political crisis.

While there are contradictory figures on the number of political prisoners in the country, she said the Defence Centre – a human rights organisation in Belarus – estimates there are 1,237 people in detention – “but tomorrow the number will be higher,” she told Lusa.

Despite the emergence in the country of a new generation with the capacity to contest their rulers, she acknowledged that Belarusian society remains fractured.

“However, during the 2020 protests, pensioners also took to the streets,” she said. “Of course, there are pro-Soviet Union people, who have nostalgia for the old times, but more and more people have access to alternative information, understand how one lives in other countries, and that we can also live differently.

“So that is why we ask young people to explain to their parents and grandparents the real situation of the war in Ukraine, etc., so that we can reach everyone.”

In a reference to the “percentage of the Belarusian population that supports the regime,” Ms Tikhanovskaya said that they come mostly from the ‘nomenclature’ – people whose jobs and status depend on the regime – as well as the security forces.

“This is because for twenty-seven years Lukashenko has managed to secure enormous political power: people are faced with fear, with blackmail,” she said. “But the regime is not as monolithic as it aims to show; there are constant conflicts in various spheres. More and more people realise that Lukashenko is not the leader to lead our country and guarantee our independence.”

“I do not hope that the situation will change, I am sure that the situation will change. Because I see people are still fighting, not giving up, and Lukashenko’s regime feels the same. I cannot predict the trend, but I feel that with each passing day, our political prisoners believe in life, in freedom. Our first task is to free them.

Her desire for release obviously extends to her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, sentenced to 18 years jail after being arrested for “a grave breach of public order” while he was gathering signatures for his wife’s election campaign.

His arrest was denounced by Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch and many others as ‘politically motivated’ and provoked – notwithstanding a flagrant violation of constitutional rights.

“The lawyer meets once a week with my husband and can deliver some information to me and I send him some information as well, but we cannot communicate directly with him” Ms Tikhanovskaia told Lusa. “The children can write letters to their father, and he answers them. But most letters written to political prisoners are not delivered to them, to show they are abandoned, forgotten; to convince them that nobody needs them anymore.” 

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com (with Lusa source material)