Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has expressed gratitude for the international community's support for her country's "peaceful fight for human dignity," but says the West needs to continue to help in the battle to remove the regime of authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Luksashenka.
"We are thankful for the help we have already received," she told the Kalinowski Forum, a conference on Belarus organized by the Lithuanian parliament in Vilnius, on March 22.
"Every gesture of solidarity, every sanction toward the dictatorship, every Belarusian refugee saved, every action that makes Belarusians acquire human rights is bringing up a step closer to democracy."
She stressed, however, that Belarus was still in the process of "making a government for the nation" as the opposition continues protests against long-ruling strongman Luksashenka.
"We need your help," she said.
The conference, which featured presentations by the heads of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committees of all three Baltic countries, the European Parliament, Poland, and the Czech Republic, was being held to exchange ideas on what can be done to achieve the goal of "free and democratic elections under the auspices of the" Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
Belarus, a Central European country of some 9.4 million people, has been rocked by continual protests since an August 2020 presidential election that was widely seen as having been falsified in favor of Lukashenka, who has ruled the country since 1994.
The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the country's president and have called for an end to the crackdown, the release of detainees, and the holding of a new free and fair election.
Lukashenka's government has responded to the protests with a massive crackdown on dissent that has seen more than 30,000 people detained.
"Over 1,000 cases of torture have been documented by human rights NGOs," Tsikhanouskaya said. "There are 290 political prisoners in Belarus at the moment, and this number is increasing every day. At least eight peaceful protesters were killed."
Tsikhanouskaya stressed that since the election, the Belarusian people had "learned to speak our mind."
"We are better in expressing our opinions and needs, our dreams and worries, our frustrations and fears," she told the forum.
Speaking from Washington later in the day, U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher said the United States supported Tsikhanouskaya's call for new elections this year.
Fisher added that the "last chapter" of Lukashenka's political legacy had "not yet been written" and called on him to open an inclusive dialogue leading to internationally monitored elections before the end of the year.
Many of the speakers at the one-day conference emphasized that Russian President Vladimir Putin's support of Lukashenka was a crucial factor in determining Belarus's future.
Anatol Lyabedzka, the head of the European Dialogue Center who played a leading role in the opposition's Public Constitution Commission in 2020, said the Lukashenka government rested on four pillars: the Kremlin's support, the security forces, the public's fear, and the economic dependence of many Belarusians on the state.
If not for the Kremlin's support for Lukashenka, Lyabedzka said, the Belarusian opposition would not need outside help. He warned Europeans to resist efforts by Lukashenka and Moscow to divide them.