The EU must apply consistent pressure on the repressive Belarusian regime until it responds to calls for dialogue, exiled democratic opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
The leader’s calls come after European foreign ministers, in coordination with the US, UK and Canada, slapped new sanctions on 78 Belarusian individuals and 8 entities on Monday (21 June), following the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk last month.
Belarusian authorities then detained dissident journalist Raman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who were onboard the flight on its way from Greece to Lithuania.
Tsikhanouskaya said it was a pity that neither new sanctions nor had high level talks or conferences been organised in between the third round of EU sanctions in December 2020 and now.
“With the disappearance of these pictures, pictures of injured people, pictures of demonstrations, interest decreased,” she told EURACTIV.
The dissident leader, who is currently living in exile in Lithuania, added that she hoped the recent spike in interest following Belarus’ forced grounding of the Ryanair flight was not solely due to the involvement of European passengers.
“I want to believe that it’s not only because European people were onboard, but because of kidnapping of journalists,” she said.
Addressing her message to European politicians, Tsikhanouskaya said to “make your policy not based on pictures but on your values and don’t play this game with trading of political prisoners.”
The EU is also expected to soon slap further targeted economic sanctions on sectors important for the Belarusian regime, including potash fertiliser exports and petrochemical products.
Tsikhanouskaya, whom opposition forces insist won a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that sparked the wave of protests against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, said she hopes the sanctions will be “strong enough for the regime to understand that they have to respond to our calls for dialogue.”
“If not, I think that the European Union has to be consistent in their policy and continue this path,” she added, warning that the sanctions were “not a silver bullet.”
Asked what she sees as realistic scenarios for the near future, Tsikhanouskaya said the regime could open dialogue with the civil society or representatives of democracies.
“Look, there can be a lot of scenarios, as a matter of fact, but we have our aim – new elections this year, this is our goal,” she said.
The detained journalist Protasevich, who confessed to calling for protests, punishable by half a decade in prison, has since been paraded on television and press conferences by the Belarusian authorities in hard-to-watch appearances that his family described as a result of “abuse, torture and threats.”
Yesterday 🇧🇾 regime showed that the genre of absurdity by demonstrating a 'safe and voluntary cooperation' of #Pratasevich had not yet exhausted — apparently hoping that the world is so naive and would be impressed by forced confession in the spirit of the 'best KGB traditions'. pic.twitter.com/kG1ZvW20LM
— Linas Linkevicius (@LinkeviciusL) June 15, 2021
Tsikhanouskaya said that these displays were a “disgusting” unsuccessful attempt by the regime to drive a wedge between democratic activists.
“Not one person blamed him, because we understand that his task now is to survive there,” she said.
Tsikhanouskaya said that the democratic forces of Belarus did not imagine this degree of cruelty was possible in August 2020, when she was catapulted into the limelight after she stepped into the shoes of her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, as presidential candidate following his arrest. She was eventually forced to flee the country in the wake of the disputed poll.
“People are not tired to fight,” she said. “When you are under such oppression you understand that your security means the continuation of your fight. You can’t do anything if you are in jail, so fight, but take care of yourself.”
“You are much more useful for society when you are free,” she added.
President Lukashenko has since managed to cling on to power with backing from Russia, a key ally.
“This toxic regime is becoming too expensive for Kremlin, as well. I think that they also would like to solve this crisis. Belarus is like a bridge between Russia and Europe and this bridge is closed now,” she said.
Tsikhanouskaya added that the democratic opposition a year on is still looking for mediators to communicate with Russia about the situation in Belarus, so far with little success.
Last month, Kremlin agreed to release the second $500 million tranche of the $1.5 billion loan in an effort to stabilise Moscow’s neighbour.
Asked what she has learned in the last year of being in politics, she said: “I’m here by fate, but I have to say that I have the best teachers: presidents, prime ministers.”
“Maybe I was too naive and still too naive, but I really believe that politics should be open and transparent. But I understand that politics is something that is done underground,” she added.
“You are talking about something, but to the public, you have to say maybe not everything what you have discussed. I am absolutely open, trustful. So if somebody can use it [against me], it’s on their conscience,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]