Profiles in courage – you may read them but you rarely, if ever, get to see them in action. But that is what happened at our in-person joint event with the Edinburgh Political Union on September 29, writes Naimh Donnellan, EMiS executive member.
After a delayed start the audience was restless. But the mood changed instantly when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya entered the room. Surrounded by a hyper vigilant security team, including members of our Police Scotland, this was an instant snapshot of how the life of this primary school teacher and mother of two young children has changed utterly since 2020.
Right now in Belarus there are 1,324 political prisoners. Those numbers include Sviatlana’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky. In May 2020, only two days after he announced that he would run as a candidate in the August presidential elections against the long-standing incumbent, Aleksandr Lukashenko, Sergei was arrested. Known as the ‘last dictator in Europe’ Lukashenko’s sham democracy showed its true colours. Any hint of opposition to him is ruthlessly oppressed. But despite this Sviatlana stepped forward to take the place of her husband as a candidate for President.
When Lukashenko then claimed he had won the election with another ‘landslide victory’ (over 80%) the deceit could no longer be tolerated by ordinary people. Knowing that the real winner was Sviatlana, thousands took to the streets to peacefully protest but the response that came from the regime was swift and violent.
One among thousands
Living with the constant threat of assassination, or further human rights abuses against her husband and family, Sviatlana is undeterred. Whilst she is the international face of the movement for democracy in Belarus, she made clear to our audience that her story is told to represent the reality of thousands of people there with family members in prison, and thousands more that know that at any moment they can be detained.
Whilst her movement has many goals she said: “The first is to release our blood”. Her husband Sergei is in solitary confinement. He is forced to stand all day in a tiny cell that is not even the length of his body. The aim is to break his spirit and inflict daily humiliations. He has no access to a shower, nothing to stimulate his mind, no fresh air. The outside temperature is currently 6° but he has no warm clothes. At night there is no respite. The bed that by day he must prop against the wall has no mattress, so he sleeps on bare wood.
“They’re trying to beak him; they’re trying to break me,” Sviatlana had told an audience of MSPs, Belarus and Ukrainian exiles and their supporters the evening before in the Scottish Parliament. “They will not succeed.”
After the hijacking of a Ryanair flight by Lukashenko’s regime, so they could arrest, abuse and imprison, the young journalist Roman Protasevich, the international community finally woke up to the calls of the Belarusian democratic movement.
Belarus and Ukraine united
But now the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine means that Lukashenko’s alliance with Putin is causing more suffering for Belarus. Sviatlana explained that Belarusians consider Ukrainians their brothers and sisters and do not want to fight. But there is a real risk that people will be forcefully mobilised. She urges the international community not to forget about Belarus and to continue to take measures against the regime but not to turn against the people.
Sviatlana has not seen her husband since his arrest in May 2020. Her children have not seen their father. Her thirteen-year-old knows he is in prison but protects his much younger sister; when she asks where her Daddy is ,he replies: “On a work trip”.
Sergei’s situation is intensely painful for Sviatlana, but she seeks to use the pain she feels to give her energy to fight on. Her leadership is sincere, and quietly fierce and strategic too. She explained the task of her movement is to exhaust Lukashenko through multiple pressure points.
She called on the audience to join this strategy and make their habit writing a weekly letter to families in Belarus to show solidarity and friendship and demonstrate that they have not been forgotten. She explained that this action would be a powerful counter response to the propaganda the regime inflicts on these families to crush their movement.
Last month Sviatlana brought the different groups seeking democracy for Belarus together to form a United Transitional Cabinet under her leadership. In her meeting with Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, she sought support for political prisoners and for training those that are ready to serve in a credible democracy in Belarus.
The European Movement in Scotland and Edinburgh Political Union will continue to support those who work peacefully for democracy in Belarus. The path ahead is fraught, there is no sign that Lukashenko’s regime will soften – the stark reality is that the evidence is in the opposite direction.
Our small gifts of thanks to Sviatlana were Scottish candles and a Nessie board game for her children. These tokens symbolise that we in Scotland will keep a light on for better days for the people of Belarus and a hope for a better world for the next generation.
• Cross-party MSPs signalled their continuing support at an intensely moving meeting on September 28 in Holyrood in which four Belorussian actors re-created the harrowing experiences of prisoners in their own tortured words – and Ukrainian exiles recited passages of history in their country’s long march towards independence and democracy.
Angus Robertson MSP, cabinet secretary for the constitution, external affairs and culture, vowed undying Scottish support for democrats (and protesters and prisoners) in both European countries. It was a theme echoed by participants from Ken McBain of Libereco UK to Irina McLean of the People’s Consulate for Belarus in Scotland and Matthew Zajac (Associations of Ukrainians in Great Britain).