NEW YORK – The leader of Belarus’ embattled opposition hopes the United States and Europe will impose new sanctions on money-making government enterprises that will lead to the collapse of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and a peaceful transition that pro-democracy supporters are preparing for because “it can happen very fast.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger to Lukashenko in last August’s disputed election, said the former Soviet Union very unexpectedly collapsed in six days and “the same situation can happen in Belarus and ... our task is to be mobilized.”
She was interviewed by The Associated Press in New York Tuesday after a round of high-level meetings in Washington with senior administration officials and members of Congress where she urged the United States to take “active and non-symbolic” measures in response to a crackdown by Lukashenko on Belarus dissidents.
Tsikhanouskaya returned to Washington on Wednesday to meet President Joe Biden who spoke out for pro-democracy forces in Belarus, tweeted that he was “honored to meet her,” and said “the United States stands with the people of Belarus in their quest for democracy and universal human rights.”
Tsikhanouskaya called the meeting with Biden “a big step forward, but we still have a long way to go."
She said in a phone interview with AP: “I secured the support of president Biden in that the U.S. will stand together with Belarus in our very difficult fight right now." She said they didn’t discuss specific new sanctions on Belarus, but talked about the need to ramp up the pressure on the Lukashenko regime.
Tsikhanouskaya said she urged U.S. officials to support negotiations aimed at new national elections under international monitoring, and to provide emergency funding for Belarus’ besieged civil society and news media.
She said in Tuesday's interview that “the most powerful lever” to weaken the regime is sanctions, and she is “confident the USA will do everything possible to be with Belarusians in this fight.”
“We will see what will be (the) response, but I’m sure that new sanctions are near, and American sanctions, together, of course, with the European sanctions, will have a huge impact on the regime,” she said.
Months of protests rocked Belarus after Lukashenko’s declaration of victory for a sixth term in the August 2020 election, a vote that the opposition and the West denounced as neither free nor fair.
Belarusian authorities responded to huge post-election opposition demonstrations with a massive crackdown, including police beating thousands of demonstrators and arresting more than 35,000 people.
Leading opposition figures have been jailed -- including Tsikhanouskaya’s husband who had sought the presidency -- or been forced to leave the country, while independent media outlets have had their offices searched and their journalists arrested.
The West responded to the crackdown by imposing sanctions on Belarus. The European Union and the U.S. ramped up restrictions after Belarus in May diverted a passenger jet to Minsk to arrest a dissident journalist. The government in neighboring Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organizing a flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa in retaliation.
Tsikhanouskaya explained that Lukashenko’s power is based on money and law enforcement, and the opposition is now seeking to put pressure on the economy, which would cut one of these pillars, by urging even tougher sanctions.
“Economic pressure on the regime, on cronies, on sectors like oil, potash, steel, wood, financial sphere -- this constant pressure will help to split allies inside the regime,” she said.
“Any trigger can happen,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “We are listening to the people on the ground, what they are prepared for, and impatience of people is growing, and nobody know what can be the trigger for new mass demonstrations for fall of this regime.”
She said most people in the regime “are not loyal to the regime” but like almost all Belarusians today they are frightened for themselves, their families and their security because arrests and kidnappings continue to take place.
Tsikhanouskaya said the threat of sanctions previously made Lukashenko release political prisoners and stop violence, so history can be repeated, “and we have to impose many points of pressure on the regime.”
“Sanctions is not (a) silver bullet,” she said. “Sanctions will not bring our country to democracy, but for sure it will help to split elites in order to make cronies of Lukashenko understand that Lukashenko’s time is over."
Tsikhanouskaya said these people will have to decide for themselves: “Are they going to be on this sinking boat or join civil society that wants to build (a) new and prosperous, open, transparent Belarus.”
Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania under pressure from Belarus authorities after the election, said she is in constant contact with the pro-democracy movement in the country.
“We coordinate our actions because we have one enemy, and we have to put multi-points of pressure on the regime and this is our strategy,” she said.
Tsikhanouskaya said the opposition is undertaking a number of steps “just to be prepared when the regime collapses” including holding a conference on new elections and working on a platform for negotiations and on economic and constitutional reforms.
“Our goal is new elections, transparent, under observation of international observers,” she said. “This is the only way out of (the) crisis in Belarus.”
Tsikhanouskaya said the opposition has called for dialogue with representatives of Lukashenko’s regime.
“They also understand that there is no way out from this crisis, only negotiations,” she said.
While it’s easy to suppress demonstrations, Tsikhanouskaya said, the protests in which the majority of Belarusians participated changed people, and it’s impossible for the government to influence them now.
“They step by step continue to resist and it’s unstoppable,” she said. “They want to build a new Belarus together, and everyone is responsible.”
Tsikhanouskaya, asked about her safety, said no Belarusian is safe at the moment.
“But even if one day I disappear, the movement will not end ... because everyone is fighting at the moment,” she said. “We don’t need leaders of this uprising because everyone is the leader.”
Ellen Knickmeyer and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.