Three Questions with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Leader of Democratic Belarus

February 10, 2022
Jonathan D. Katz
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
6 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis /
On February 9, German Marshall Fund Senior Fellow and Director of Democracy Initiatives Jonathan Katz interviewed Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of Belarus’s democratic opposition, on the Day of Solidarity with Belarus.

They discussed growing Belarusian and international concerns regarding the Lukashenka regime’s deepened military ties with Russia and potential role in an invasion of Ukraine. Tsikhanouskaya pointed to the illegality of Lukashenka’s actions, how new dynamics impact Belarus’s future, and the need for the West to strengthen its response to these challenges. Finally, Tsikhanouskaya spoke to the continued need for increased US, European, and international support to advance Belarus’s democracy and the need for a strategy shift to address a new and dangerous phase in the country’s struggle for democracy, independence, and sovereignty.

It looks like from the United States and Europe that the future of Belarus’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is in the balance with Alexander Lukashenka opening the door to thousands of Russian troops and equipment, letting Russia conduct military drills and threaten Ukraine as its influence over Belarus grows. Has a threshold been crossed by Lukashenka, leaving the Kremlin de facto in control of your country’s security?

Yes, a threshold has been crossed. Lukashenka opened the Belarusian territory to a significant number of Russian troops. There are several disturbing and problematic sides to this development with far-reaching implications. First, the urgent nature of these military exercises, suspect timing, and expanded scope are out of the ordinary. President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka decided to conduct so-called snap military exercises in December 2021, while normally such decisions are made at least a year in advance. Second, there’s no credible official information about the format and scale of the drills. Meanwhile, Russian troops are reportedly arriving in Belarus in tens of thousands, and they and their equipment might stay beyond February 20 when the exercises are to formally end. Third, this provocative massing of Russian troops is happening in the areas bordering Ukraine in parallel to Russia’s concentration on its own territory of over 100,000 troops threatening Ukraine. Finally, Lukashenka is now openly threatening Kyiv with military action, openly siding with Kremlin policies.

All these actions violate the constitutional provision that Belarus pursues neutrality and Lukashenka’s actions constitute aggressive behavior toward Ukraine, which hasn’t threatened us in any way or form. This stance breaking with the Belarusian constitution has nothing to do with national security, but it serves Lukashenka and foreign interests. This is the red line that is indisputable and demands a response—from the Belarusian people, from democratic forces, and from the international community.

What steps should be taken by the United States and Europe to address Lukashenka’s role in the aggression toward Ukraine and the deepened threat to European security, and his abandonment of Belarusian sovereignty?

After the rigged election of 2020, Lukashenka lost domestic and international legitimacy, and you have seen the international community respond to his transgressions. However, this non-recognition domestically and intentionally should also cover the legality of international agreements and deals signed by Lukashenka after he lost the presidential mandate. Emboldened by the lack of a clear stance by the international community on this aspect, and despite calls from the Belarusian democratic forces to refrain from abusing Lukashenka’s weakness, Russia has moved to capitalize on this situation. In 2021, Lukashenka agreed to expand the Russian military presence in Belarus and signed a large package of integration programs carving Belarusian sovereignty even further.

Lukashenka must be fully and unequivocally de-recognized along with his government to deny validity to all such decisions, agreements, and deals made or concluded after the 2020 election. This should also include the coming sham constitutional referendum and its results. Among other changes, Lukashenka’s draft constitution removes Belarus’s neutrality and nuclear-weapon-free status adopted in 1990—a move with potential implications for regional and global security. Importantly, these current changes are taking place at a moment when Lukashenka is weakest and have never been put to a debate among Belarusians.

There are other steps, including multilaterally, to support Belarusians and stop Lukashenka from destroying Belarus as well as threatening Europe and international stability. The UN and its specialized institutions need to address the growing recklessness of Lukashenka’s behavior that repeatedly threatens international peace and security. The collapse of democratic institutions in Belarus has a real and serious spillover as well as security consequences regionally and in the international space. In just one year, Lukashenka hijacked a Ryanair flight to arrest a journalist, openly engineered a migration crisis to punish the EU for supporting the democratic aspirations of Belarusians, and took part in the foreign military intervention in the internal political crisis in Kazakhstan, and now he threatens Ukraine and wants to return nuclear weapons to Belarus.

As we continue our fight for a democratic future, other measures should aim at keeping Belarus at the top of the international agenda, building up pressure, and supporting Belarusian civil society and independent media. We deeply appreciate the US Senate’s recent Shaheen-Wicker resolution in support of Belarusian democracy, which lists such steps and expresses solidarity. But high on the agenda must be the de-recognition policy and Lukashenka’s illegitimacy, laid bare by his egregious criminal actions. Voices in support of de-recognition include US Senator Robert Menendez last August. That position must be central to efforts by the United States, the European Union, and the international community to hold Lukashenka accountable.

If the window for peaceful political transition is closing or has closed given Lukashenka’s decision to hand over Belarus and its sovereignty to Russia, including in a released integration map with Russia, then what is the response of the Belarusian opposition and does there need to be a change of tactic for the opposition and Belarusians?

Lukashenka and his regime created a grave threat to Belarus by submitting the country to the uncontrolled deployment of Russian troops, a sign that those illegitimately in power are abandoning their duty to preserve the sovereignty and independence of the nation. They might cross other red lines soon. Allowing Russian troops to invade Ukraine from Belarus’s territory would be one of them. As I have said before, Belarusians are not going to meet any military troops or Russian invasion with open arms. They will not accept any threat to our independence, and this would only create one more regional conflict.

Supporters of Belarus’s democracy will not sit idly and will respond to Lukashenka’s assault on the country’s independence. Its sacred sovereignty and independence, now being given away by Lukashenka, are the highest values for Belarusians, and we will do everything necessary to defend them. This is the baseline for our assessment of the situation and the urgency for an amplified response. While we continue our fight for Belarusian democracy, we have entered a new phase in our struggle against Lukashenka’s repression and handover of our country’s sovereignty. This moment requires Belarusians and our friends abroad to be brave as we are contemplating steps, including shifts in strategy, that are commensurate with the threats we see today.

More on Belarus

In June 2021, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya joined the German Marshall Fund at Brussels Forum for a session called: Women, Youth, and Exiles: The New Faces of the Global Struggle for Democracy.