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She Challenged Europe’s Last Dictator In Belarus And Was Forced Into Exile. She Says She’s The Country’s “Chosen President.”

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said in an exclusive interview with BuzzFeed News from exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, that she — not Alexander Lukashenko — is “the national, chosen president” of Belarus.

Posted on September 8, 2020, at 2:37 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya speaks to BuzzFeed News via Skype from Vilnius.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya does not like being called an opposition leader. First of all, she says, the movement she has inspired in Belarus is no longer the opposition: “we are the majority.” And secondly, she says, she was the winner of Belarus’s Aug. 9 presidential election.

“My role now can be described as national leader, I think. And, of course, as the national, chosen president,” Tikhanovskaya told BuzzFeed News in an exclusive interview Monday from Vilnius, Lithuania, where she has been living in exile for the last month. Shaking her head as she considered the events of the past several weeks, she added: “I never could have imagined that I would be in this place.”

In just three months, the 37-year-old mother of two has gone from being a self-described “housewife” with no political ambitions to becoming a hero of the protests shaking Belarus and dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year grip on power.

Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians inspired by her presidential campaign have rated Belarus one of the least free nations in the world in its 2020 report.

But despite claiming a landslide victory, Lukashenko is on the ropes. Defying demands of the protesters and much of the international community, he has so far refused to leave office and dug in. Twice in the past two weeks, he has appeared increasingly desperate, donning riot gear and carrying an automatic assault rifle on the grounds of his presidential palace in Minsk, which he ordered to be surrounded with razor wire and guarded by the military and armored infantry fighting vehicles. His press service claimed it was all for self-defense when crowds of demonstrators marched on the palace.

But the crowds of more than 100,000 protesters — comprising students and teachers, tech entrepreneurs and state factory workers, pensioners and others — who have faced off with Lukashenko’s police and military forces have been largely peaceful.

“It’s hard to know what he’s doing,” Tikhanovskaya said about Lukashenko’s gun-toting antics. “We don’t understand if he wants to show us that he’s ready to kill his people or maybe he’s so afraid of his people that he has to have his gun.”

A former teacher and English translator, Tikhanovskaya said Lukashenko allowed her on the ballot because he didn’t think she had any chance of winning. The Soviet-esque strongman said during the campaign that a woman president “would collapse, poor thing.” He was more worried about Tikhanovskaya’s husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was arrested while trying to register to be on the ballot and is currently languishing in a jail outside of the Belarusian capital, Minsk. He is able to communicate with his wife only through a lawyer twice a week, she said.

Tikhanovskaya said she stepped in to take his place “for love,” never thinking that she would find herself in the position she is in today. “He feels as good as a person in jail could feel,” she said of her husband. “He knows what’s going on in Belarus and he believes in the Belarusian people.”

Gone are the evenings at 数字货币合约交易是什么_数字货币基金有home when Tikhanovskaya said she would cook cutlets for her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter and dream of where the family would take its once-a-year vacation on the Black Sea. Now she spends her days fighting for the future of her country, meeting with European heads of state and top US officials, and briefing the United Nations Security Council.

At the moment, she is doing it from exile. On Aug. 11, she was detained in Minsk, interrogated for hours by Lukashenko’s security services, and forced to film a video urging her supporters to stop protesting before being driven to the border and that they saw Kolesnikova being shoved into a minibus and driven away.

After almost 24 hours of silence, Lukashenko told a pool of top Russian state media figures in Minsk on Tuesday that Kolesnikova had been detained while being driven to the Ukrainian border. At a televised press conference in Kyiv, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, Kolesnikova’s associates who were with her at the time, told reporters that she had torn up her passport and thrown it out of the car to prevent Belarusian ities from deporting her. Kravtsov said that Kolesnikova then “climbed out of the car and walked bravely to Belarusian territory.” A Belarusian state border guard official told the media that the political leader was pushed from a speeding car by her two associates in the area between crossing points to thwart her deportation. Ukrainian border guards confirmed in a statement that Kolesnikova never entered Ukrainian territory but said that her two colleagues had.

At the time of publishing, virtually all of Belarus’s protest leaders were serving jail sentences, sitting in detention, or else living in forced exile abroad.

But while Lukashenko has threatened and jailed many leaders of the protests, and used his security forces to brutalize and detain thousands of demonstrators — many of whom have recounted horrific stories of abuse and torture — he has thus far failed to stamp out the movement against him. Instead, with each crackdown attempt, the protests have swelled and the solidarity among demonstrators demanding his resignation has grown stronger.

Tikhanovskaya said the moment marks Belarusians’ “politically awakening.” Although she said it was less politics that have jolted her fellow citizens into action and more Lukashenko’s mismanagement of the country. Belarusians are angry at him for a stagnant economy that has made Belarus one of the poorest countries in Europe and more recently for his failure to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Lukashenko called COVID-19 a “psychosis” and claimed wrongly that simply drinking vodka, playing ice hockey, going to the sauna, and even riding tractors — something he called “tractor therapy” — would keep the virus at bay.

In the meantime, Belarusians suffered and died and hospitals were left without much-needed personal protective equipment. In the state’s absence, civil society stepped in, something that Tikhanovskaya said marked a turning point.

“When ordinary people started organizing and collecting money for our doctors,” she said, is when people began to realize that new leadership was needed and that Belarusians could self-organize. She noted one defining moment, when her husband, Tikhanovsky, published an interview with a doctor who was critical of ities’ COVID-19 response. “People around the country started to collect money for him. And in just one day they collected for him his year’s salary,” she said. “People then understood that they can work together.”

Darius Mataitis / Reuters

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya speaking at a press conference in Vilnius.

Speaking in slightly accented English, Tikhanovskaya said she never planned or expected to become a political figure. Born in Mikashevichi, a Belarusian town just 30 kilometers north of the border with Ukraine, Tikhanovskaya was one of many “Chernobyl children” whose health was affected by the radioactive fallout of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Pripyat and whom Irish families welcomed into their 数字货币合约交易是什么_数字货币基金有homes for some rest and recuperation. She spent several summers as a child with a couple in the central Irish town of Roscrea.

At least part of her worldview was shaped by the time, she said.

“My visits in Ireland were my first visits abroad. It was really a shock to see what level of life people had,” Tikhanovskaya said, recalling shops filled with aisles of products. But one thing that left a lasting impact, she said, was the politeness of people, which gave her a sense of what was possible.

“You just go out and people are smiling at each other… In shops people always said hello and thank you,” she recalled. “And in our country it wasn’t always normal to say thank you. People were always thinking about money or having something to eat.”

She described herself as still being “the shy girl” of her youth and said she doesn’t want power; she hopes only to help the Belarus transition to new leadership.

“What has to happen is new, honest elections. It’s our number one goal,” she said. “And after this, building a new country. And all people have to participate in building this new country. We don’t want that one person to have all the power over people.”

She sees Belarus’s new free-spoken and politically active generation as the antidote to Lukashenko’s Soviet-type system.

But Tikhanovskaya admitted that her movement might need some help. In video addresses last week, she asked the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and the UN Security Council for their support and to consider sanctions against officials responsible for rigging the presidential elections and committing what she said were “crimes against humanity” while dispersing protests.

She told BuzzFeed News that she had asked US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun earlier this month when they met in Vilnius to deliver the message to Washington that she would like the US to help mediate the crisis in Belarus. At the same time, however, she said she cautioned Biegun about the US becoming too deeply involved in it.

“I asked Mr. Biegun not to interfere in our internal affairs,” Tikhanovskaya said. “What’s going on now is an internal affair, it’s our political crisis. I don’t think it would be OK if any country in the world would interfere in our internal affairs.

“We asked this of other countries,” she continued, referring to Russia. “But I underlined in that meeting [with Biegun] that maybe if we aren’t able to [influence change] ourselves, maybe we will need some kind of mediation. So we would be grateful to the US, Russia, and other countries if they would like to help us on this question and would act as mediators in this difficult situation.”

Belarus experts have criticized the US for a lack of support for the pro-democracy protests. “The EU is playing the lead role as far as the Western response. The US is nowhere,” Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who served as the British ambassador to Belarus from 2007 to 2009, quoted three unnamed EU diplomats as saying the bloc will impose economic sanctions on 31 senior Belarusian officials, including Interior Minister Yury Karayeu, who is seen as being responsible for the brutal police crackdown on protesters, by the middle of this month. Last week Reuters quoted an unnamed US diplomat as saying Washington could consider sanctions if Russia intervened to help Lukashenko.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment. A senior US official Lukashenko is expected to meet with Putin in Moscow in the coming days.

Lukashenko has also presented Tikhanovskaya and her allies as being anti-Russian and claimed she wants to see Russian eliminated as the state language, to be replaced with Belarusian. “I have heard about the program of this Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has supposedly made such statements,” she said. “It’s absolutely bullshit.”

In the interview with Russian media on Tuesday, Lukashenko conceded that he “may have stayed [in power] a little too long.” But, he continued, “only I can really protect Belarusians now.” And he addressed the images of himself toting the assault rifle while signaling to his opponents that he plans to stand his ground.

“My appearance with the gun meant one thing: that I had not fled and that I am ready to defend my country to the end,” he said.

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