Belarus opposition leader warns of Russia’s threat: ‘We know dictatorship’ – National |

The exiled leader of the opposition to Belarus’ authoritarian government says her country’s struggle for democracy is also one for its sovereignty as Russia continues to draw Belarus into its war on Ukraine.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania in 2020 after President Alexander Lukashenko deployed a severe crackdown on protests against his disputed election win, says Lukashenko’s confirmation last week that “several dozen” Russian nuclear weapons have been positioned inside Belarus is another example of Russia’s subjugation, which has affected “all spheres of Belarusian life.”

“For us, it’s a question of sovereignty of Belarus,” she told Mercedes Stephenson in an interview that aired Sunday on The West Block.

“If these brutal dictators (Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin) launch these nuclear weapons, the counterattack will be on Belarus. … This is a crime.”

Click to play video: '‘Apocalypse’: Lukashenko warns Russian nuclear weapons deployed in'

‘Apocalypse’: Lukashenko warns Russian nuclear weapons deployed in

Lukashenko and Putin have strengthened their alliance in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, helping each other evade economic sanctions imposed by NATO and other allies. Belarus has also hosted Russian troops and facilitated their entry into Ukrainian territory, although Belarus has not involved its own armed forces in the conflict.

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Belarusian and Russian state media on Thursday quoted Lukashenko telling the Belarusian People’s Congress that internal and external threats from the Belarus opposition and NATO — which he presented without evidence — justified hosting Russian nuclear weapons as part of a new national security and military doctrine. Putin and Lukashenko first agreed on nuclear weapons placements in Belarus last year.

Tsikhanouskaya said the closer bond between Lukashenko and Putin paints a false portrait of Belarus as a Russian proxy or “appendix,” which she said the majority of Belarusian people do not support.

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“We are a European nation who wants to return to its European roots, who want to be part of the European family of countries,” she said. “But there is a dictator who is dragging us back into the Soviet Union past.”

Political prisoners isolated

Since fleeing the country, Tsikhanouskaya has declared herself the leader of democratic Belarus and worked to establish free and fair elections in the country. Last year, Tsikhanouskaya was tried in absentia on charges including attempting to overthrow the government, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

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Tsikhanouskaya challenged Lukashenko in the 2020 election after her husband, activist Syarhei Tsikhanouski, was arrested shortly upon announcing his candidacy. He has been detained ever since, and was later sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Click to play video: 'Belarus opposition leader says new elections must be held before new constitution'

Belarus opposition leader says new elections must be held before new constitution

For the past year, Tsikhanouskaya says she has not heard anything from her husband, who is also the father to their two children, or about his condition. She says this isolation is part of a broader strategy of torture by the Lukashenko regime.

“It’s a way to persuade our political prisoners that they’re forgotten,” she said.

She said her children still ask about their father “every day” and why they don’t receive letters from him.

“(They ask me,) ‘What’s happened? Is he dead?’” she said. “That’s the most painful, the uncertainty.”

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Her account mirrors those from the families of other opposition figures who have also not heard from their loved ones in over a year. Additionally, the country’s human rights group Viasna said last week it had identified at least 93 prisoners who are suffering from cancer, heart disease and other conditions that are being neglected or poorly treated behind bars.

More than 35,000 people were arrested in the 2020 crackdown on dissent, while other opposition figures fled the country. Viasna says more than 1,400 political prisoners are now behind bars.

Click to play video: 'Belarus sentences Nobel winner Ales Bialiastski to 10 years in prison'

Belarus sentences Nobel winner Ales Bialiastski to 10 years in prison

Tsikhanouskaya said the death in February of prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny while in custody has underscored the danger faced by her husband and other political prisoners in Belarus and around the world. Whether Navalny’s death serves as a “green light for dictators,” she said, depends on how the democratic world responds.

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“If the response will not be decisive and strong enough, it will give opportunity for all the dictators to kill their opponents in prison without any consequence,” she said.

She said countries must ensure they are coordinating and synchronizing their sanctions placed on Moscow and Minsk in response to both Ukraine and Navalny’s death to ensure they can’t buy and sell sanctioned materials to each other — a loophole that is being exploited by other allies like North Korea as well.

Tsikhanouskaya added democracies must not waver in their support for Ukraine as it fights to survive Russia’s invasion, noting she can speak from experience about the threat authoritarians like Putin pose.

“We know dictatorship,” she said. “If we allow the beast to prevail in one country, they will not stop there. They will challenge the democratic world further. And believe me, the next doors the enemy will knock will be your doors.”

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