Since the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the international community has been quick to condemn it. However, according to formerly secret Russian military documents recently released by the Ukrainian Intelligence Service, when Belarusian dictator and Putin’s ally Alexander Lukashenko was facing massive protests over the use of “election fraud” to extend his presidency back in 2020, Putin originally planned to invade and occupy Belarus to avoid the overthrow of Lukashenko’s regime. Putin’s regime has been working to support Lukashenko and cool the opposition since then. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a candidate for the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, answered questions about the situation in Belarus during a session with Eat News at an online event was organised by Club de Madrid.
Europe’s last dictatorship
Lukashenko, who has been in power in Belarus since 1994, has been called “Europe’s last dictator” and has been a critical ally of Russia. On August 9, 2020, Belarus held its sixth presidential election, which has been widely criticized as spurious. Prior to the election, opposition presidential candidate Tsikhanouskaya held a large rally in the capital, Minsk, where human rights groups claimed between 63,000 and 70,000 attendees, and the police claimed about 18,000, the largest rally in Belarus since 1991.
However, on the day of the election, there was an unusual breakdown of the Belarusian internet, and pro-government television stations suddenly showed Lukashenko with 80% of the vote, which triggered protests in many cities across the country. In the following days, law enforcement used batons, rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas, flash bullets, and other weapons to evict people from the largest demonstrations in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Security forces arrested about 3,000 people, sent at least 50 people to the hospital with injuries, and killed one protester. On August 16, after Putin expressed his support for Lukashenko, 220,000 Belarusian citizens participated in the opposition’s “Freedom March” in Minsk. After the election, the Lukashenko regime began secretly arresting opposition leaders, including musician Maria Kalesnikava and banker Viktar Babaryka, leaving opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya, a presidential candidate, to declare herself in exile in Lithuania on August 11.
Originally an English teacher, Tsikhanouskaya is married to Sergei Tikhanovsky, a well-known Belarusian YouTuber and social activist who hoped to enter the presidential race in 2020. The police, however, arrested Sergei for “disrupting public order” because he had long criticized Lukashenko as a “cockroach” on the Internet, and started a protest march with flip-flops. After his arrest, his wife announced that she was running for office in his place and tried to enter the presidential election. Sergei was subsequently sentenced to 18 years in prison by a Belarusian court in 2021.
The Second Coming of the Baltic Information Bureau
After Tsikhanouskaya‘s exile in Lithuania, she established the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power, the People’s Embassies of Belarus, and other shadow government-like institutions whose purpose is to facilitate the transfer of democratic power in Belarus. To express their support for the Belarus opposition, on August 18, 2020, the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) passed a nearly unanimous resolution calling for the non-recognition of the recent presidential elections in Belarus, and supporting the lifting of sanctions imposed on officials from neighboring countries. The resolution also urged Lithuanian leaders, the European Council, the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the national parliaments and governments of the EU and NATO member states not to recognize Alexander Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus. A few weeks later, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted, “Today the Lithuanian Parliament passed a resolution stressing the loss of legitimacy of the outgoing leadership and calling on the international community to support Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the Belarusian Coordination Council in their struggle for new democratic elections.” About a month later on October 17, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Canada issued a joint statement in support of Belarusian civil society, the Coordination Council, and more cooperation with the Belarusian opposition.
According to Lithuanian National Radio and Television, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis proposed on January 8, 2021, that the Belarusian opposition “Coordination Council” should establish an office in Lithuania. The representative office could have a status like that of the Baltic Information Bureaus, which operated abroad during the Soviet occupation. According to the book The Baltic Question During the Cold War, written by British historian John Hiden, the Western European great powers kept their Baltic policies low-key, opening channels with Baltic political actors primarily on cultural questions, e.g., the setting up of the “so-called” Baltic Information Bureaus, which played a small role in the end of the Cold War. December 20, 1990 was the opening day of the first Baltic Information Bureau in Copenhagen, and featured a conference incorporating foreign ministers from the Nordic countries and Baltic Republics (the so-called 5+3 meeting). The conference concluded by publishing a statement that the “actual” participation of the Baltic states in the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) must be increased, with an eye to their full participation in the future. According to Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks’ book Latvia: The Challenges of Change, there were Baltic Information Bureaus in several Nordic capitals at the end of 1990. After independence, these bureaus served as Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian embassies. Today, the same script is being repeated by the Belarusian opposition in the 21st century.
Lukashenko has secretly joined the Russo-Ukrainian war
Although Lukashenko has not participated directly in the military invasion of Ukraine, he has frequently given high support to Putin’s regime in defense and diplomacy, including the formation of a “new Soviet Union” with Russia. According to Newsweek, Lukashenko met with Aleksandr Gusev, the governor of Russia’s Voronezh region, on April 21 of this year. The two discussed their interest in further developing cooperation between Belarus and Russia. “We are creating a single Union State based on new principles to ensure that everyone’s interests are respected and that sovereign independent state ̶ Belarus and Russia ̶ continue to develop. I believe that this alliance will attract other republics of the former Soviet Union,” Lukashenko said. On April 2, 1997, Russia and Belarus signed a treaty to create a supranational entity, the Union State of Russia and Belarus, to achieve greater political, economic, and social integration. This move is now seen as an attempt to form a new Soviet Union with Russia.
Commenting on Belarus’ current relationship with Russia, Tsikhanouskaya said at a public meeting at the IE University in Madrid, Spain, on May 18, 2022 that “technically speaking, Belarus is not part of the conflict, but it has become a launching pad for Russia. With the permission of the Russian regime, more than 700 missiles were launched from the territory of our country occupied by the Russian army. These missiles and aircraft targeted peaceful cities and civilian targets in Ukraine, such as maternity hospitals, which were bombed from Belarusian territory. Dictator Lukashenko hopes that this war will be a big victory for him and Putin”. Tsikhanouskaya stressed that Putin and Lukashenko underestimated the strength and bravery of the Ukrainian people and the anti-war sentiment in Belarusian society. About 86% of the Belarusian people claim that they are against the participation of Belarus in this war. In addition, Tsikhanouskaya mentioned the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment, a group of Belarusian volunteers who are now fighting alongside the Ukrainian military. The session was moderated by Cristina Manzano, director of EsGlobal, Spain’s leading digital publication on global affairs, and a member of Club de Madrid.
Responding to the moderator’s question about whether the deployment of special Belarusian combat units on the Belarusian border with Ukraine in the south was an attempt to join the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tsikhanouskaya said, “Belarus and Ukraine have always had good relations. The Ukrainians are our brothers and sisters”. According to information from the Belarus opposition, some Belarusian officers were ordered to participate in the war, but they refused. The mothers of the soldiers also launched a soft-power campaign and started calling their sons to ask them not to join the Russian army. Tsikhanouskaya stressed that Lukashenko is the illegitimate leader of Belarus, and has become an accomplice of Putin’s regime. “He must take full responsibility for giving Belarusian lands to the Russian army”. As the opposition in Belarus, Tsikhanouskaya’s team asks Belarusian soldiers not to fight against Ukrainians. She said, “…because now we should be with the Ukrainian people, and soldiers and officers know that very well.”
In response to questions from the audience, Tsikhanouskaya said that she entered politics unexpectedly. “At first, I was sure that there were strong organizations or structures in Europe, such as the European Commission, the European Council, that would be able to give immediate help to the democratic movement. I gradually realized that these structures or institutions work in democratic societies, but sometimes they do not have enough tools to help oppose dictators.” Tsikhanouskaya believes that now the Western countries are mainly only discussing the illegal actions of the Lukashenko regime, but not taking any action to assist in re-establishing democracy in Belarus. She believes that Western democracies should have to develop robust solutions, “as we have seen in the case of Ukraine, when this war involves so many institutions and countries, even those that could not imagine that they would be involved, providing heavy weapons to help.” Tsikhanouskaya stressed that the Belarusian people and the Lukashenko regime are two different things, as she constantly explains in her media appearances. She still believes, however, that it is essential to keep communicating with national leaders because they influence their government’s policies, and she needs to keep updating those leaders about the internal situation in Belarus.
In response to a question from Spanish newspaper La Razón about the similarities between Putin and Lukashenko, Tsikhanouskaya said, “Both are dictators who do not think much about the people; they only think about their power. Of course, Lukashenko does not have the ambition to restore the Russian Empire to the world, but he sacrificed the fate of the Belarusians. Lukashenko must pay the price for supporting Putin since 2020”.
Putin’s regime plotted to invade Belarus in 2020
According to a document released by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s intelligence department on April 19, 2022, Russia was planning to invade Belarus to prevent a regime change. The Kremlin has not yet responded to the authenticity of this information. In response to a question from Eat News, Tsikhanouskaya admits that when they launched the election protest rallies in 2020, the opposition had already received information that the Russian army was already on the border with Belarus and that Russia would launch an invasion if the opposition succeeded in becoming the ruling party. “I have to say that, in my opinion, it was not Ukraine but Belarus that Russia wanted to invade in the first place.”
In this meeting, former Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga also participated via video and said, “As a former president of Latvia, I can fully sympathize with the Belarusian opposition, who did everything they could during the election and have now become unwilling accomplices to war crimes and crimes against their will. Thank you for speaking out and reminding us that your country is not consistent in its support for President Lukashenko’s support of his crony Vladimir Putin. Russia and its military forces are committing crimes against humanity in Ukraine.”
It is worth noting that during the webcast of the meeting, online Russian supporters attempted to disrupt the proceedings and tried to smear Tsikhanouskaya as a “Nazi,” even chanting “Heil Hitler” during the meeting.
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