26 Feb 2021

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: 'During the election campaign - I felt fear every day'

10:01 am on 26 February 2021

She was a former school teacher and stay-at-home mother, and would become the symbol of an uprising.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Serge Serebro

Last year, it took a rigged election to prevent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya becoming president of Belarus.

She only ran as a candidate after her husband, a popular YouTuber and opposition activist, was arrested soon after announcing his candidacy.

She decided to run in his place - and it is suspected she was allowed to do so because the authoritarian, Soviet-era President Alexander Lukashenko didn't take her particularly seriously.

In the months leading up to election day, her popularity blossomed - hundreds of thousands of people turned up to her rallies - her victory seemed inevitable.

The result, however, showed a landslide victory of 80 percent for President Lukashenko.

The result was rigged.

In the subsequent days, opposition figures were arrested and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania with her two children.

"During the election campaign - I felt fear every day. I felt fear for my children, for my husband, and for my people," she told RNZ.

"That fear hasn't disappeared now."

She has been recognised by many western countries, including New Zealand, as the rightful leader of Belarus.

She has also been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and was named on the BBC's latest 100 Women list.

Yet President Lukashenko remains in power thanks to fear, and the brutal enforcement of his riot police.

"I know that I have won [the election], but legally I can't prove it as the evidence has been destroyed. But I know that people voted for me and I feel rightful."

Many in Belarus feel the same.

Every weekend since the election, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand President Lukashenko relinquish his power.

Law enforcement officers detain a protester during a rally against presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus.

A protester is arrested in Minsk, Belarus. Photo: AFP

The protests aren't just happening in the capital Minsk, but across Belarus.

In response, President Lukashenko has responded with violence - his riot police detaining thousands some weekends.

New Zealand has condemned this crackdown, but Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wants countries like ours to do more.

"When other countries see the level of violence in Belarus, when they see the erosion of human rights, they can't close their eyes on the situation."

Vadim Chausov, an IT professional who moved to New Zealand from Belarus's capital Minsk in 2014, said change in his country feels inevitable.

"The newer generation of Belarusians have started to care about human rights - perhaps an issue that the previous generation in Soviet-era Belarus didn't care about so much."

Many demonstrations have been organised and led by women.

Thousands dressed in white, carrying flowers, have formed human chains to call for an end to police brutality.

A rally in support of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Minsk.

A rally in support of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Minsk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's two top aides are women - they both remain in detention in Belarus.

She has said before that she never wanted to be a politician, yet she felt it necessary to stand up to a dictator.

"At the moment, I have to be a politician. But I feel that this is not what I want to do in the future," she said.

"Being a politician may be a good profession in a safe country in peaceful times, but it's difficult to be a politician fighting a dictator."

She will remain in Lithuania for now, and said she struggles to see a time when she will ever be president of Belarus.

"But I know that I could be useful in the future when we together try to build a new Belarus - a safe Belarus."

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