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Laima Vince is an American writer based in Vilnius. She has written three books about post-Soviet Lithuania.

laimavince@gmail.com
www.laimavince.com

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Illustration by Ūla Šveikauskaitė. She is one of the artists' from the community "Artists With Belarus", which solidarize with people of Belarus peacefully fighting against the regime.

Laima Vinceby
Laima Vince

 

 

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has been called the most unlikely of leaders—a stay at home mother of two and former English teacher with no political experience, no outside support, and with only her open heart and authenticity to rely on. When Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s husband, the political vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was jailed for running for president, she stepped in to take his place. She ran an election campaign that made only two promises: To free all political prisoners and to hold legitimate elections in six month’s-time.

Tikhanovskaya’s press secretary, Anna Krasulina, at her talk at Vilnius University on August 29th, shared that Tikhanovskaya is “spontaneous and dramatic.” She claimed that “without consulting with anyone, it took her no longer than fifteen minutes to make the decision to run for president in place of her husband.”

Perhaps, she is the most likely leader.

Perhaps the world was shocked by the emergence of this seemingly unlikely leader who led the Belarusian people out of their political slumber because it’s been so long since we’ve witnessed a true grassroots leader who seems to come from nowhere and who follows their heart.

Tikhanovskaya rose from the people, understands their problems, expresses their will, and that is why she has earned their trust. In those heady weeks of her election campaign, Tikahnovskaya became the face of the Belarusian opposition. She may not be a professional politician, but she has become a symbol of her nation’s struggles. She gained support by traveling from region to region, speaking with people directly. No other opposition leader has managed to reach all levels of society in Belarus the way she has.

Tikhanovskaya has become the people’s voice of resistance against a totalitarian president who disregarded the nation’s health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic, and who in two previous elections disrespected Belarusian citizens’ freedom to choose their own president in a fair democratic election.

Krasulina explained how the opposition to Lukashenko’s stranglehold on power first emerged over his dismissal of the dangers of the coronavirus. In Krasulina’s words, “That was when we citizens of Belarus realized that we did not matter to the government at all. He used many degrading words to describe how insignificant we are to the government and how our lives and our health simply do not matter.”

Tikhanovskaya’s authenticity and direct honesty inspired tens of thousands of Belarusians to take to the streets when falsified election results were released, claiming Lukashenko had won 80 percent of the people’s vote. In her talk, Krasulina explained that all over Belarus the election committees have years of experience falsifying election results. It was expected that they would falsify the results at this election. However, in some provinces people working in the electoral offices kept track of the actual votes and leaked that information to the opposition. Based on those “unofficial numbers” they estimated that Tikhanovskaya had won 80 percent of the votes. Yet, legally, there is no way to prove that Tikhanovskaya won the election because the evidence has been destroyed. But the people know who they voted for and they are tired of their voices being disrespected.

According to Krasulina, on August 9th, the day of the presidential election, the regional electoral offices did not dare officially post the election results because already they felt the pressure of the opposition. On August 10 and 11 Lukashenka called in special troops, known as the OMON, to beat, arrest, torture Belarusian citizens who had taken to the streets in peaceful protests against the falsification of election results. The peaceful protests were an expression of the people’s free will to choose, but peaceful protesters were met with violence. According to Krasulina, the scale of the violence in Belarus today is horrifying and the victims of beatings, torture, rape, number in the thousands.

No political activist funded by a Western democracy project has managed to inspire the nation in this way. It took one woman’s courage to awaken the Belarusian people from complacency.  Perhaps, the expectation was that the leader who would lead the Belarusian people out of a totalitarian post-Soviet regime into democracy would be well prepared, and probably, he would be male. In a patriarchal country like Belarus, and indeed a patriarchal region, this gender bias seemed hardly worth mentioning. Lukashenko initially disregarded Tikhanovskaya as a serious voice and political contender because she is a woman. His sexism gave Tikhanovskaya the space to meet with supporters, to hear them, and to voice her message.

When I read that Tikhanovskaya had fled to Vilnius and found refuge there, I knew that I wanted to meet her. However, meeting Tikhanovskaya is not so simple. For her own safety, and that of her children and mother, she is in hiding and under guard. My chance came when she made her first public appearance at a press conference in Vilnius on Friday, August 21st.

I wore a simple white Lithuanian linen dress out of respect for the women protesters of Belarus. White, the color of peace, has become the symbol of the Belarusian revolution. On August 12th, the morning after massive arrests of peaceful protesters, beatings and torture executed by the dreaded OMON, there was a deafening silence on the streets of Minsk. Then, the women emerged, dressed in white, holding the hands of their children, carrying flowers. They formed a human chain, opposite the OMON troops, clad in black, armed to the teeth, protected with helmets and riot gear. In a gesture of peace, the women in white handed out flowers to the OMON, the most violent of men.

Anna Krasulina called this moment, “a feminist action” and “an incredible gesture.” She noted that after the women went out into the streets in their gesture of peace, the men took courage and emerged from hiding.

On the day of Tikhanovskaya’s press conference, I arrived at the Marriott Hotel early. Lithuanian police circulated the sidewalk, patrolled the lobby. Coffee, snacks, and water was set out. Only the previous day, the anti-Putin commentator, Alexei A. Navalny, was poisoned when he drank a cup of tea in an airport in Tomsk. I chose to err on the side of safety and forgo the beverages and snacks.  

The mood in the room was thick with anticipation, but also with a tinge of doubt. Journalists are a hard-boiled lot, but I would have expected to see more euphoria over the possibility of freedom in Europe’s last totalitarian regime. Only thirty years ago Lithuania threw off the shackles of the Soviet Union. It is tempting to make comparisons between our revolution and theirs, but also important to remember that every nation creates its own historical path.

Post-Soviet countries have inherited a measured wariness from decades living under Soviet occupation. In conversations with Lithuanians since Tikhanovskaya took refuge in Vilnius, I’d heard a variety of opinions. Some suggested that Tikhanovskaya may have been installed by Moscow. They came to this conclusion because her husband had made statements in his vlog before his arrest that seemed politically pro-Russia. In Lithuania, Putin is regarded as totalitarian and a threat to the stability of the region.  However, in Slavic Russian-speaking countries like Ukraine and Belarus, people have a more nuanced view of Putin’s Russia.  Yet, the fact remains: Tikhanovskaya did not take refuge in Russia. She took refuge in Lithuania, a member of the European Union. She has also stressed in public statements that she is not influenced politically by Russia.

Living in Lithuania, I understand where some of the Lithuanian doubt comes from—Russia’s influence in Belarus is a legitimate concern. This geopolitically crucial buffer zone could go either way—absorbed as a province of Putin’s Russia, or with the possibility of support from the European Union and United States, evolve into a democratic European state, possibly a member of the European Union sometime in the future. However, the latter scenario seems like a pipe dream. Tikhanovskaya and her staff have stressed that Belarus will decide its own fate, and that although aid and assistance is welcome, they wish to remain independent from the political influences of both the European Union and Russia. The people of Belarus are protesting to remove Lukashenko and hold a free democratic election. So far, the opposition has not explored more complex geopolitical questions in public statements except to stress Belarus is a self-reliant country and that its citizens will choose their path for themselves.

In her talk at Vilnius University, Krasulina explained that before Tikhanvoskaya and her team set out on the campaign trail, they carefully considered the use of historical Belarusian symbols in their peaceful rallies. They did not want to alienate Belarusian Russians, who make up a large percentage of the population, by taking up the traditional red and white historic Belarusian flag as a symbol.

“We need to make a distinction between Russians and Belarusian Russians,” Krasulina stressed in her talk. “Belarusian Russians are loyal to Belarus and we see no difference between us.”

While in rural areas the Belarusian language is still spoken, in the cities only ten to fifteen percent of the population speaks Belarusian. However, Krasulina stated, “now it is fashionable to speak Belarusian.”

As the protests stretched on, more and more historical Belarusian symbols appeared on the streets, like the knight on horseback, a symbol shared by both Belarus and Lithuania, dating back to the era of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These symbols were accepted by all the protesters, both ethnic Belarusians and Russians, as the symbols of the peaceful protests.

Many in Lithuania feel that a stronger position is needed against the human rights violations that took place in Belarus after the elections and are continuing to take place. At the Vilnius University talk, a former Lithuanian diplomat made a statement that it is not acceptable that the European community is not doing more to recognize the violence against unarmed citizens, stating that the steps taken so far by the European community, although good, are not a strong enough response to the human rights abuses perpetrated against the people of Belarus. He noted that countless dissidents, whose names are not known to the West, have been in jail in Belarus for years.

Krasulina told the audience at Vilnius University about how despite Lukashenko’s propaganda numbers, unemployment is high in Belarus. It is difficult to find a good-paying job. Therefore, she stressed, we should appreciate the financial risk that the factory workers and other laborers are taking by going out on strike. She spoke about how people are careful to clean up all the litter after a mass protest, to keep law and order, to show the Belarusian government and the world that they are peaceful, respectful people who are simply defending their rights and asking to be heard. She talked about how Lukashenko ordered the traffic lights shut off in the cities to create mayhem between drivers and protesters. The protesters solved the traffic problem by directing the traffic themselves.

As I waited for Tikhanovskaya to emerge from behind the door, I thought about how her courage inspired a people who had no living memory of personal freedom and democratic government to protest in mass peaceful rallies. She had inspired three generations of Belarusians, who had come of age in a totalitarian system, to take to the streets, to face down the dreaded OMON, to endure beatings, and to stand up for what they believed in with dignity and fortitude. The people of Belarus have shown their true face to the world. It is amazing to see.

Photographers huddled together cameras pointed at the door. Finally, the door opened and Tikhanovskaya emerged. Camera shutters clicked and flashbulbs splashed light across her face. As she walked past me, I saw eagerness, and authenticity in her face, but also a toughness.

Her long dark brown hair fell down her back in a simple style. She was wearing lipstick. Tikanovskaya reminded me of the earnest and open beauty of Lithuanian women during the years of the Singing Revolution, before advertising came to Lithuania and drilled the slogan into women’s heads: Grožis yra ginklas, “Your beauty is your weapon,” equating a provocative and plastic beauty with superficial materialistic success.

She wore her signature white suit jacket and slacks. To be honest, she probably fled that night from Belarus with the clothes on her back. She’d gone with her lawyer to enquire about the election results and was detained seven hours. Then that infamous video of her emerged, where clearly under duress, she read a statement saying that she was a “weak woman who had underestimated her strength” and that she was withdrawing from the election. In effect, it was a scripted concession speech. In Belarus, and abroad, few believed the words she read nervously into the camera that night, were her own.

The press conference began and Tikhanovskaya delivered her opening statement in a calm and steady voice, gazing directly at the crowded room of journalists.

“It is well known that I did not choose this path. My fate has chosen this path for me. I was presented with a choice: The choice between freedom and fear, truth and lies, love for my country or obedience to the system. I have made my choice.”

“The people of Belarus are beaten only because they have expressed their opinion. People in Belarus today are locked behind bars simply for participating in demonstrations. In Belarus, my husband is in jail because he dared to dream of a country where we could find life. We no longer wish to live in fear and lies. We desire what every citizen of the world has a right to.”

 “We are a peaceful and calm people. However, it is wrong to believe that we are cowards. I call on the violence to stop and for new elections. I hope that the Belarusian leadership will hear the voice of the Belarusian people and respect their will. They tell us Lukashenko loves his country and the people of Belarus. I hope that he will hear them now. I hope that Lukashenko and his government will accept our request for dialogue.”

A journalist asked if she feels afraid, and whether she will return to her country.

She responded: “I love my country. I will return there when I feel safe. We must all fight against our own fears. I believe that every person in our country feels fear right now, but we must conquer that fear and move forwards.”

Only people who have lived under a totalitarian regime can honestly know that fear and what it takes to overcome it. Every single person out on the streets in Belarus has had to make the choice to overcome their own fear.

Another journalist stated that although she did not initially perceive herself as a political candidate, she had now grown into one. Would she run for political office?

Tikhanovskaya responded simply: “This question is not worth answering right now. Our goal now is to stop the violence and work towards freedom.”

“How long will the rallies go on and how long will this resistance last,” someone asked.

“Only time will show us. However, Belarusians will never again accept living under the current leadership. There can be no forgiveness for their crimes.”

A Lithuanian reporter asked if she could comment on the statements she made in the video that was released while she was detained for seven hours by Belarusian security before she was escorted to the Lithuanian border.

She responded with dignity, “I am not ready to discuss those videos.”

Anyone who has done any research on KGB methods knows that their approach is either direct threats to family members, beatings, blackmail, or rape. I felt that the question was unfair at this time and that it was not asked with empathy. I am not naïve, and I understand the need for answers in journalism, but still, I feel more respect needs to be shown for what she has suffered.

That she suffered is clear—is it important to know the details? What is important that whatever happened during those seven hours Tikhanovskaya was held in custody, did not break her.

I asked my question: “The world has witnessed two courageous Belarusian women inspire the people of Belarus to seek freedom and democracy in their country—Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. What is your source of strength as a Belarusian woman?”

Tikhanovskaya broke into a warm smile. Was it my white dress—the symbol of peace, and the color of the Belarusian resistance? Or did the question open something in her heart. She responded in English: “As I said before, I came into this election company just for my husband. I just turned instead of him. But during this company I felt such a wonderful support of Belarusian people. I felt they wish for changes. So only the Belarusian people gave me all this braveness, and all this support for me to move on in this company.”

The press conference ended and Tikhanovskaya was ushered out of the room. An older white-haired man with a paunch, dressed in a rumpled white dress shirt and dark slacks, stood at the back of the room shouting in Russian. At first, I blocked him out—such unhinged shouters are all too common in our uncertain times. But then I began to listen. He was shouting that Lukashenko had won the election fair and square. Reporters rushed over to film him, giving him unnecessary airtime. I later found out his name was Yuri Subotin. He was a known Lukashenko supporter and provocateur.

A Russian journalist standing next to me smiled and said, “This is what I like about living in a democracy. Everyone is given a chance to speak. In Russia, they would have removed him immediately.”

She told me she was from the Crimea and after the Russian invasion fled to Lithuania, where she found political refuge.

I thought of how the internet was shut off in Belarus and how protesters were using VPNs to get images of the violence, and the peaceful protests, out to the world. The previous weekend I met a Belarusian woman who had found refuge in Lithuania. Over the week, she continually sent me photos from Telegraph Nexta of broken and badly bruised bodies, asking me to pass the images on to Americans, to seek help for the people of Belarus. The constant bleeping of my phone every time I received a new image or video clip from the streets of Belarus, did not let my conscience rest for even a moment.

The determination of the Belarusian protesters has rippled across the border to Lithuania, a country that gained its independence only three decades ago, and where until only a few weeks ago Belarusians were synonymous with the eager shoppers who came over the border to Vilnius to shop at the popular mega mall, Acropolis.

On Sunday, August 23, 2020, on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Poland and the Baltic States between the Soviets and the Nazis, 52,000 people in Lithuania linked hands in a human chain from Vilnius to the Belarusian border to show support for the people of Belarus. I was one of them.

On Pilies Street a 50-meter long red and white Belarusian protest flag was held aloft through the narrow curving medieval streets of the Vilnius Old Town. People carried flags of the Lithuanian coat of arms, the Vytis, a knight on horseback in white on a field of red, a symbol dating back to the era of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The mood was filled with revelry, sincerity, respect for Lithuania’s hard-won freedom, and with support for the protesters in Belarus.

Thirty-one years ago, on August 23, 1989, on the fifty-year anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, I stood with two million Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians in a human chain that stretched from Vilnius to Tallinn. We all dreamed one collective dream—that our countries would one day be free, independent, European states. That dream was fulfilled within two years. 

At that time, the sensation of coming together as a nation and daring to dream, daring to hope for the seemingly impossible, was mixed with fear—the fear of military reprisals, fear of violence against unarmed protesters, fear of the unknown.

The Lithuanian peaceful freedom chain, and the peaceful protests of the Belarusian people, were first inspired by the courage of one Belarusian woman, a wife and a mother, who loves her country so deeply that she dared to speak out with dignity for what she believes in—a Belarus where her children may grow up in freedom.

 

 

 

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