by Miceál O’Hurley
DUBLIN – On Tuesday, 13 May 2021, I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the democratically elected President of Belarus who is now living in exile for her saving owing to the brutal crackdown and threat posed by ‘the Last Dictator in Europe‘, Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko stands credibly accused of having falsified election results to maintain power on the heels of the worst post-election violence experienced in Europe since the NSDAP Brownshirts brutalised voters in the 1920s and 1930s.
Diplomat.ie has delayed publication of this interview out of courtesy to the Department of Foreign Affairs and members of Government so as to allow them to publish their meetings with Ms. Tikhanovskaya before us.
You can hear the un-edited interview by clicking on the link below.
My interview was a well managed affair with Department of Foreign Affairs staff ever-present as suits the dignity of someone of Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s position. She was always accompanied by a robust security detail provided for by the Republic of Lithuania. Her personal staff consisted of a single person. If, as Lukashenko claims she is in the employ of the CIA or being backed by some un-named oligarchs, she certainly has none of their money or resources. Ms. Tikhanovskaya, living in exile, is doing so ‘on a shoestring’. She carried her own bags at check-in. She reeks of being both genuine and authentic – she is her own person – and a person as single-mindedly dedicated to her nation’s future as she is her own family.
The visit to Ireland, coordinated by Lithuania’s energetic and able Ambassador in Ireland, Mr. Marijus Gudynas, also benefitted by the capable assistance of one of his trusted staff, Ms. Lina Damulevičienė. The organising had all the hallmarks of professionalism with a heavy dose of over-scheduling as befits a woman on a mission to liberate her nation.
Having covered Heads of State in the media, and many presidential election campaigns in several countries, what impressed me most was the diligence the security guards paid to Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s person. It was atypically heavy, in my experience, and yet, I know they do so for good reason.
Since stealing the election from Ms. Tikhanovskaya last August, Lukashenko has spared no effort to kidnap, imprison and torture anyone he considers a threat to his perpetual grip on power over Belarus. Beyond having arrested opposition candidates in last year’s elections (including Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei), Lukashenko has used his police, military and his KGB to menace even the most common Belarusian that fails to proclaim his greatness, let alone decry his despotism. And, given that Lukashenko’s patron is Russian President Putin, who routinely engages in extraterritorial poisonings, shootings and other forms of assassination, Lithuania is to be commended on taking her personal safety so seriously, even in friendly, bucolic Ireland.
Persevering Despite Real and Present Danger
The lengths to which Lukashenko has gone to kidnap and jail his enemies is startling, even by the standards of despots. Lukashenko has employed State resources to kidnap, imprison and torture his enemies. Even his friends have found that once they are of no further use to him they are as likely to join the ranks of the jailed as his most vociferous opponents. Lukashenko is an astute follower of the Dictator’s Handbook – those he cannot make cower, he bribes. Those he bribes, he randomly persecutes so nobody feels safe. Lukashenko’s only sense of duty is to his retention of power, at any and all costs.
Some of the more recent kidnappings have included a former advisor and spokesperson, Alexander Feduta, from a luncheon in Moscow in April 2021. American lawyer, Youras Ziankovich, who met with Feduta for lunch, was also kidnapped. The two were driven hundreds of miles across the Russian frontier and into Belarus where they disappeared amongst the thousands of others Lukashenko fears. They were only located months later. Domestically, Lukashenko employs kidnapping people from the streets in broad daylight whenever it suits him.
Not satisfied with kidnapping his opponents (real or imagined) in other countries, Lukashenko orchestrated one of the most audacious acts of air piracy in history. Using the ruse of a bomb on-board, reinforced by the presence of an armed Belarusian jet fighter tailing the flight, Lukashenko forced an Irish registered, Ryanair civilian passenger jet, to divert from its regular route between Athens, Greece and Vilnius Lithuania, and land in Minsk. In forcing down the flight in Belarus Lukashenko got his prize – he arrested a young dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega.
There are reports, yet unverified, that Lukashenko actually believed Ms. Tikhanovskaya may have been aboard the Ryanair flight. Even air travel across a free and unified Europe on an Irish aircraft is no longer without its dangers.
The woman I met with is young (38). Slight in build, with a pleasant face, she was visibly fatigued from a non-stop schedule of meetings with the Belarusian diaspora in Dublin, not to mention countless politicians and diplomats who clamoured to meet her. Her day included a rare honour, a special meeting at the United States Ambassador’s residence in Phoenix Park attended by His Excellency Mr. Marijus Gudynas, Ambassador of Lithuania, Her Excellency Ms. Olena Shaloput, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Embassy of Ukraine, and hosted by Ms. Alexandra McKnight, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the US Embassy.
Despite having been on her feet for hours, Ms. Tikhanovskaya was gracious, kind and generous with her time. I worried, however, that at the end of a long day, I might not get the best of interviews.
I was wrong.
My Experience of the Woman from Mikashevichy
As soon as I began the interview Ms. Tikhanovskaya became visibly animated. The waifishly thin woman I first met suddenly sat straight up in her chair and loomed larger than life. Her eyes, which I had at first found woefully weary, became clear, focused and sparkled as she spoke about her beloved Belarus, her fellow countrywomen and men. Instantly spirited (and not just for effect), she spoke passionately about her abiding concern for her fellow Belarusians (at home and in the diaspora). Repeatedly, she spoke defiantly against the Lukashenko regime and of her devotion to the safety of her people.
I began to comprehend how the Lukashenko regime thought that by allowing her to run for the Presidency they were getting a mere ‘housewife’ for opposition. I relish in thinking how aghast they were to discover that in Svetlana Tikhanovskaya they instead got the epitome of the ‘charging knight on horseback’ that is the very symbol of strength and unity of the people of Belarus.
Beyond the physical, it is immediately and abundantly clear that Ms. Tikhanovskaya possesses a sharp intellect and a compassionate soul. When asked, she acknowledges the threat to her own safety but immediately redirects the conversation back to the plight of the average person on the streets of Belarus who suffer daily, and have done so for year upon year, all at the hands of ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’, Lukashenko. Moreover, she passionately pleads for the release of the thousands of political prisoners arrested and tortured by Lukashenko and his evil regime Her husband counts amongst them, but her plea is not personal, but universal.
She is what Belarus needs at this very moment.
She is, however, wrong about one thing – the people of Belarus did not vote for her as just an alternative to Lukashenko. They voted, and voted overwhelmingly for the brave and unwavering ‘Woman from Mikashevichy’ – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
As I listened to her speak she inspired me. I don’t often say that about the people I interview. She has all of the ability of a great leader and yet none of the personal ambition. Her charisma is rooted in the genuine nature of her beliefs – not the polished persona of a professional politician.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya takes the inherent energy emanating from the Belarusian people’s national hopes and aspirations and directs it for her people’s liberation and freedom. And still, she is rooted in reality.
Despite her age, she is wise enough to know that democracy must be earned, cherished, nourished and renewed for it to endure as a national value. She has an almost preternatural ability to sense the mood of the people of Belarus and articulate it in terms that foreseeably might earn her the mantle, ‘Mother of the liberated Belarus’. Through it all, she remains legitimately humble – its not about her – it’s about the freedom of Belarus and the national destiny of its people.
I admit, the more I listened to all she had to say, my mind recalled the compassionate and aspirational words of Bobby Kennedy in his words from Capetown, South Africa, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”.
In Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s words I heard the echoes of Benazir Bhutto saying, “Freedom is not an end. It is a beginning”.
And, I see the courage of Dr. Martin Luther King whose inspiring ‘Mountain Top’ speech might have come from the lips of Ms. Tikhanovskaya, herself:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
– MLK, 3 April 1968
History records how Bobby, Benazir and Martin met their fate. They knew the risks and yet they chose to serve anyway. And yet I have the uncanny feeling of certainty about her – call it desire, premonition or simply unabashed hope – I believe Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s fate is to join with her countrywomen and men and bring an end to the tyranny under which they have for too long suffered and from which the world must join them in its delivery.
It is my Editorial position that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and her Belarus, deserve the wholehearted support of the international community. We must all remember Belarus and not allow it to slip from the forefront of our minds simply because we don’t see the outrage of its citizens being beaten daily on the evening news. I call upon everyone who values liberty, and the dignity of the human person, to bring maximum pressure to bear on Lukashenko to step-down from office and let the Belarusian people be free.
If we each join in this paramount struggle to free the people of Belarus, our fellow Europeans, we can speed on the day when Svetlana Tikhanovskaya can rest assured that her efforts, the sacrifice of her people, and the horrors suffered by those kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured in the name of liberty, were not in vain.
For now, the fate of Belarus and this lionhearted woman from the Brest Region of Belarus are inextricably linked. For that reason, and many more, Ms. Tikhanovskaya deserves the support of all who love freedom, justice and democracy.
It is time to return Belarus to the sorority of nations.
@Go_Lithuania @ukr.embassy.ireland @BelarusMFA @Tsihanouskaya