I lost a rigged election in Belarus – only the west can help us win freedom from Russia | Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Lukashenko is a teetering tyrant and innocent Belarusians don’t want to be part of the Russian leader’s ‘balcony’ over Europe

  • Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus

Peat bogs span almost 15% of my home country of Belarus. But, in recent times, citizens have grown wary of these dense, acidic wetlands. Their decaying vegetative matter is a valuable source of fuel and, after decades of being gradually drained and stripped away, the drying marshes that remain pose a significant fire risk. Smouldering underground fires can burn for months unseen before bursting out into the open and wreaking devastation.

Much like these underground peat fires that grow shielded from view, democracy in Belarus is currently burning and President Alexander Lukashenko’s corrupt, despotic regime is the decaying marshland, tinder-dry and ripe for destruction.

Just over two years ago, I ran for election against Europe’s longest-sitting and most repressive ruler. I was forced to stand in place of my husband, Siarhei, after Lukashenko’s secret police – terrified to face the will of the Belarusian people – locked him up, along with every other potential opponent.

When I put my name forward, I had little expectation of winning. After all, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994, his regime morphing from the soft authoritarian rule of a collective-farm boss into a vicious autocracy that currently has 1,300 political prisoners in its jails.

As my team and I watched the election results unfold from our headquarters in Minsk, we were astonished to see tens of thousands of photos of ballots with a mark next to my name flooding the internet. In the evening, people stayed at ballot stations to demand a fair count. After they were denied, thousands went to protest in the city centre, kickstarting a revolution in the country that continues to this day.

Belarus has become a political desert. Civil society has been forced to go underground. Journalists publish their material anonymously. Yet Lukashenko is deeply unpopular and much weaker than many assume. He is supported by no more than 25% of the population: mostly pensioners, bureaucrats and security service personnel, who depend on the state for jobs in a tanking economy.

Lukashenko would not have survived the uprising that followed the stolen 2020 election if it wasn’t for Vladimir Putin. The Russian president sent propagandists, financial support and, eventually, tanks in a bid to prop up his old Soviet ally – then forced him to pay his debts by enlisting support for the catastrophic invasion of Ukraine 18 months later.

Lukashenko’s unpopular backing of Putin’s unlawful war, which so horrified the developed world, should hasten the beginning of his end. Millions of Belarusians are furious that Russian troops were allowed to march through our lands before launching their failed attack on Kyiv.

Sanctions have already been levelled against Lukashenko and his cronies. But they could go so much further. We need more monetary and secondary sanctions targeting the state economy that fuels Lukashenko’s KGB intelligence agency and Putin’s war machine. Belarusian state-owned banks should be eliminated from the global financial system and state-owned companies should be expelled from the Swift banking regime.

Of course, Lukashenko does not care that Belarus is a vassal state. At every stage of his rule, he has backed Russia over his own people. Lukashenko wanted us to speak Russian, rather than our own language. It was rumoured that his personal aim at one stage was to become president of Russia. Despite the media blackouts, a critical mass of the Belarusian people now understand that they are ruled by an agent of the Kremlin who squats at the apex of a country he does not want to exist. Public revulsion is mounting. The democratic fires of Belarus will eventually roar, the only question is when.

At the UN general assembly , which opened last week, the international community must come together and send a strong message that the world is united behind the democratic majority in Belarus.

The nature of Lukashenko’s autocracy means penalties can be implemented relatively easily without too much damage to innocent Belarusians. UN member states can target the state-owned entities that rely on Lukashenko’s patronage, leaving the private sector to flourish. Belarusian media and civil society need financial support. This would create incentives for more and more people to choose the path of democracy, justice and the rule of law.

At the UN general assembly, Belarus must be at the table, not on the table, and our territorial independence and political sovereignty must be guaranteed. Lukashenko has placed Belarus at the centre of the crisis in eastern Europe. Yet, it remains part of the solution – our geographical location has huge significance for the Kremlin. Remove the puppet Lukashenko and you remove Putin’s Belarusian “balcony”, which looms over eastern Europe and provides strategic access to Poland and the Baltic states. Doubtless the future of my country is already being raised in diplomatic back channels. But the world must not bow to Russian pressure. They must not give up one square metre of Belarus in an attempt to end Putin’s desperate war.

Finally, the UN must make it very clear that Lukashenko’s request for Russian nuclear weapons to be deployed on Belarusian territory would elicit a severe response. Just like Ukraine, Belarus gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1994 in return for security guarantees from the west – and Russia. Putin has now run roughshod over Moscow’s obligations under international law. The prospect of Russian nukes being transported to Belarus, which borders several Nato countries, would be a nightmare for the west.

Belarusians are a very patient people. We have suffered too long without complaint. One of our national characteristics is ciarpila, which means “endured”. After 28 years, we have endured enough at the hands of Lukashenko. It is time for the international community to help us light an inferno that finally engulfs this teetering tyrant.

  • Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at guardian.letters@theguardian.com


Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Putin’s timeline for storing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is hard to believe
Although Alexander Lukashenko has agreed to host nuclear bases little construction work seems to have started

Julian Borger in Washington

26, Mar, 2023 @5:44 PM

Article image
Putin’s mission to Minsk raises fears he will drag Belarus into Ukraine war
Putin and Lukashenko announce more joint manouevres as Kyiv warns of potential new invasion from north

Pjotr Sauer

19, Dec, 2022 @2:36 PM

Article image
Belarus partisans say they blew up Russian plane near Minsk
Group says it used drones to hit early warning aircraft at Machulishchy airfield 12km from Minsk

Andrew Roth in Moscow and Peter Beaumont in Dnipro, Ukraine

27, Feb, 2023 @11:23 AM

Article image
Britain take note: if you want to beat Putin in Ukraine, target his wicked little helper in Belarus | Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Alexander Lukashenko put our airbases and resources at Russia disposal. His fall would accelerate victory for Ukraine, says Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

07, Mar, 2023 @8:00 AM

Article image
Lukashenko is dragging Belarus closer to a war that most of its citizens don’t want | Ryhor Astapenia
The dictator’s first loyalty is to Putin, says Ryhor Astapenia, director of the Belarus Initiative at Chatham House

Ryhor Astapenia

21, Mar, 2022 @2:30 PM

Article image
Is this the end for Belarus and Russia's 'brotherly love'?
Left shaken by the Ukraine crisis, Belarusian president has started looking for new allies in Europe. Mikalai Anishchanka reports

Mikalai Anishchanka in Minsk

29, May, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
Belarus should face same sanctions as Russia in event of invasion, says EU
Foreign affairs chief says Lukashenko is allowing his country to become a Russian satellite state at tense meeting of bloc

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

21, Feb, 2022 @7:50 PM

Article image
EU leaders urged to tell Moscow not to meddle in Belarus
Calls for bloc to use emergency meeting to send strong message against military intervention

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

17, Aug, 2020 @5:10 PM

Article image
Russia to send Belarus nuclear-capable missiles within months, as G7 leaders gather in Germany
Vladimir Putin again raises nuclear threat during Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, as Olaf Scholz hosts G7 leaders to discuss energy and food crisis

Staff and agencies

26, Jun, 2022 @1:03 AM

Article image
Lukashenko's popularity in Belarus on the rise
Violence in neighbouring Ukraine has enhanced president’s standing as voters choose stability over change

Katerina Barushka in Minsk

14, Aug, 2014 @4:00 AM