Actions of the international community, including European sanctions against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, have to be ‘faster and braver‘ to support Belarusian civil society in its struggle, Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told EURACTIV.
“The protest mood hasn’t been stifled in the recent weeks and months, but we have to take into consideration that the level of repressions in Belarus, and this level is unprecedented,” said Tsikhanouskaya, who leads Belarus’ opposition to Lukashenko’s rule from her exile in Lithuania.
Belarus has been rocked by massive protest demanding Lukashenko’s resignation since August, with massive crackdowns and Draconian sentences against peaceful protesters.
A local human right watchdog has recorded 325 political prisoners, as of the end of March, and around 999 cases of people facing criminal charges for participating in protests.
The cost of participation in mass protests, Tsikhanouskaya said, has significantly increased.
“Media, human rights defenders are under constant attack, and the EU has to put more attention to this and to stop torture and incentivize the release of political prisoners,” Tsikhanouskaya said, adding that at the moment around 1000 people are in prison and face year-long sentences.
According to her, the EU could do more in assisting Belarusians in Belarus and “actions should be faster and braver”.
EU should be ‘faster and braver’
Long-time strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has run Belarus since 1994, and other top Belarusian officials and companies have been slapped with sanctions by the West, which refuses to recognize him as the legitimate leader of the country.
Last week, EU member states submitted their proposals regarding the fourth package of sanctions which might be introduced against the representatives of the Lukashenko regime.
“We are grateful to all the European countries that supported our civil society, that supported our strive for democracy,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
But asked whether she considers the Western sanctions enough, Tsikhanouskaya said she would “really want the EU to be faster and braver in its position”.
“Sanctions are the easiest way to put pressure on the regime, and of course, they should be expanded, because the number of people and businesses on the sanctions list is rather low at the moment,” she added.
Asked whether those sanctions should be expanded to oligarchs close to Lukashenko, Tsikhanouskaya said “even the threat of sanctions for oligarchs is a very powerful leverage”.
“All their businesses that act as wallets for this regime have to be on a sanction list, just to stop support for violence and torture,” the Belarus opposition leader added.
“This regime has called me terrorist, and it’s impossible to come back to Belarus – I will be in jail as soon as I cross the border,” Tsikhanouskaya said, who fled the country shortly after last year’s disputed August election and called for Lukashenko to leave power.
In March, Belarus’ prosecutor’s office has opened a criminal case against her on suspicion of ‘preparing a terrorist act’, demanding her extradition from Lithuania. Vilnius rebuked in March they would rather “watch hell freeze” over than acquiesce to Belarus’ request.
For now, the Belarus opposition leader said she excludes a return to the style of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who flew back to Moscow after a poisoning attempt and is now in a prison colony.
“I miss my country, so I hope one day, I will come back with victory,” she said, adding that the time has to be right for this to happen.
According to her, the ultimate goal are free elections but “due to the high level of repressions, people have to take care of themselves first, and they try now to build different structures on the ground”.
“We have to sustain this protest movement, and we have to help workers and students and neighbourhoods to organise themselves to continue the pressure on the regime. More nationwide strikes are considered as well”, she said.
However, she said no trade with political prisoners should be done.
“We can’t allow re-legitimisation of Lukashenko,” she added.
Asked whether she would like to see Lukashenko stand trial in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for human rights abuses against protesters, Tsikhanouskaya said that there are already several cases under universal jurisdiction initiated by Lithuania, while the EU and UN collect evidence of human rights abuses that can be passed to international courts, including the top court in The Hague.
“Our task is that all perpetrators will be brought to justice – whether this is in free Belarus, or international courts doesn’t matter at the moment – we have to avoid impunity,” she said.
However, so far Lukashenko has hung on to power, able to rely on force and on his alliance with Russia to ride out the protests and sanctions imposed against him and top officials by the EU and other countries.
Minsk is still ready to provide a platform for negotiations within the Contact Group for settlement in Donbas, it considers the video conference format ineffective, Deputy State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council Vladimir Archakov told Belarus-1 TV channel recently.
Asked about the escalating tensions in her country’s neighbourhood and whether she fears the spillover effect from the current escalating tensions in neighbouring Ukraine to Belarus, Tsikhanouskaya said she doesn’t want to see Belarus be dragged into military conflicts.
“But I admit that while Lukashenko is in power, there will always be such risk – because now, this regime is weak and we don’t know what deals under the carpet they have made with the Kremlin,” she said.
“In the modern world, it’s unacceptable to change the borders of the states or countries violently, and I really believe that the democratization of Belarus will help to stabilise the situation in the region,” she added.