While tens of thousands of people continue to take to the streets, the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaya is in Vilnius, Lithuania. “I am with my children and that is the greatest happiness for a mother. But my heart is in Belarus,” she says in conversation with New Year’s Eve.
Tichanovskaya is the face of the opposition in Belarus. In the campaign the former teacher said that she prefers to fry meatballs, that she is actually a housewife. She is brand new in politics, but has shaken a man who has been in power alone for 26 years.
Place of imprisoned man taken
For months, 37-year-old Tichanovskaya has been diametrically opposed to ruling President Alexander Lukashenko. She is married to video blogger Sergey Tichanovsky, who had put himself forward as the presidential candidate. That plan thwarted the government. The video blogger was briefly detained and was not allowed to run.
Tichanovskaya decided to jump in the hole. She thought about it one evening and registered – while her husband was in prison – as a candidate for the election. “Taking my husband’s place was a step I didn’t give any particular meaning to at the time, but it inspired people,” says the Belarusian in retrospect.
In a controversial victory, President Lukashenko claimed to have won 80 percent of the votes. According to the official figures, Tichanovskaya is less than 10 percent. This result is disputed by Tichanovskaya and her supporters, who then protested en masse.
“We hoped that the elections would be fair, but that if they were not, people would take to the streets,” says the opposition leader. “The people are showing how many they are, and who they voted for.”
Tichanovskaya is proud. “We finally woke up and understand that we can no longer live in a country with such a leadership,” she says:
A few days after the election, the 37-year-old political activist disappeared. She later turned up in Lithuania and two videos appeared. There was speculation that she was under heavy pressure. Tichanovskaya can’t or won’t say why she went to Lithuania.
“I have a reason that I might share in the future,” she says. “But right after the election, I had a very hard time. I felt it was too hard for me, that I had given up. But thanks to the people of Belarus, I was able to find the strength to persevere.”
The images of tens of thousands of Belarusian citizens taking to the streets to protest against Lukashenko fill her with pride. “I can’t be there physically, but with my heart and soul I am with them. They don’t take to the streets for me, for the person Svetlana Tichanovskaya. I can be a symbol, but they take to the streets for their future. For a new, free Belarus.”
Tichanovskaya also has great concerns. She looks with horror at the violence in Minsk. “The government continues to frighten and does not stop the violence. We never expected people to be beaten until they are half dead or even dead. There are dozens of people missing. It’s a terrible situation, which we cannot forgive or forget.”
Although she doesn’t know yet how to proceed, Tichanovskaya feels that the momentum lies with the opposition. For the first time the opposition united against the government. She entered into collaboration with Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova. They are the wives and campaign manager of three men who were not allowed by the government to stand as presidential candidates.
“Honestly, I don’t think the three men would have united,” says Tichanovskaya laughing. “It was pure coincidence that they were three women. That there was a woman behind every man who wasn’t allowed to apply. That we could take their place, make arrangements and get the people behind us.”
Despite the concerns and the fear of violence from the government, Tichanovskaya expects that the Belarusian citizens have overcome their fear permanently. “When you take to the streets to protest you feel the fear, but you learn to overcome that fear,” she says. According to her, the spirit is out of the bottle. “People seek justice, feel self-respect and dignity. You don’t cover that with fear.”