In an interview Sunday with Voice of America, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian opposition, said she came to Washington at the invitation of the U.S. State Department for a series of meetings with high-ranking U.S. government officials. She said her focus would be on the worsening human rights situation in Belarus as well as the escalation of violence by the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.
She would not confirm whether she would be meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden.
Since the August 2020 Belarusian presidential elections, Tsikhanouskaya, 38, a candidate, was forced to flee to neighboring Lithuanian where she lives with her children. Her husband, who she communicates with in letters, has been in prison for 14 months on charges of violating public order, inciting hatred and plotting mass disturbance, charges he denies.
Tsikhanouskaya’s discussion with VOA has been edited for clarity.
VOA: What are you hoping to accomplish in your discussions with American officials?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: We are fighting for the values that are common in the whole world. And I want the U.S. to be champions in this fight. I'm sure that Belarus can be a success story, and the U.S. can be part of this. And this can be Mr. Biden's success story alongside Belarusians. And so, I call on the U.S. to be with us, to on one hand, put pressure on the regime, and on the other, to support civil society. It's very important when a regime is destroying everything in Belarus — destroying mass media, destroying all the demonstrations — it's extremely important to support all those people, who show their braveness and strength, to not give up.
VOA: In what capacity are you here?
Tsikhanouskaya: You know, people call me by different titles. But I prefer the National Leader of Belarus. I’m the leader of democratic Belarus, because I'm the person who people voted for in the last elections. But the regime stole this election from the people, and I have the mandate from the people to represent them inside the country and in the international arena. It's impossible for me to be in Belarus at the moment because I will be imprisoned immediately. But people gave me this right to be their voice in democratic countries.
VOA: How do you see America's role in the world today?
Tsikhanouskaya: America is one of the most powerful countries and the most powerful democracies in the world. And, of course, they have to promote democratic values over the world and, together with the other democratic countries, to help countries who are still fighting for these changes. And, again, we are coming back to the steps needed: Putting pressure on the dictatorship's regime and providing assistance to civil society. And we, of course, we are looking for justice. But these actions should be joined together with the European Union, with the United Kingdom, because when you are joined, when you are united, you are more powerful.
VOA: A huge part of this geopolitical equation and what's going on in Belarus is obviously Russia, and Vladimir Putin personally. What needs to happen in your view for Vladimir Putin to drop his support of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko?
Tsikhanouskaya: We understand that Lukashenko and Mr. Putin have a long — it's not friendship, OK — but a long relationship, and they got used to each other. Lukashenko is toxic now for people in Belarus. He’s toxic to democratic countries, to the West, and he’s becoming too costly for the Kremlin politically and economically. I don't know how we can persuade the Kremlin to support Belarusians. But we welcome Russia as mediators if they can be part of the resolution. We are always sending these messages to Russia that we are not looking for enemies. We are looking for allies. We want to build a transparent relationship with Russia in the future. But we have to talk about Belarus, about our right to choose the president we want.
VOA: What was the scariest moment for you in the last year?
Tsikhanouskaya: In the election campaign, I got a phone call from an unknown person who told me that we will put you in jail, your children will be put in orphanage if you don't stop this campaign. I overcame that moment. Then the next one started when the regime started their violence. They beat so many people, tortured people, and we — the whole world saw this. You know, blue bodies of those who were released from prisons. And it is continuing. This is the scariest, the most painful moment, and I underline that it's still continuing even if there are no pictures.”
VOA: Can you tell us if you are meeting with President Biden?
Tsikhanouskaya: No, I really can't supply you with this information. But I hope that I will have the opportunity to talk to Mr. Biden as a promoter of democratic values in the world. If we meet, I will tell him how the U.S. can help. I know that he's a very warmhearted person. I want to tell him about all those people who are in jail, about their relatives, about how, despite torture and violence, they are strong, they are brave. They continue to fight, and I want to ask Mr. Biden to promote the Belarusian issue in the world, to stand with us, to be braver and stronger and faster in helping Belarusians in this difficult situation.