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'We Underestimated The Regime's Cruelty': Exiled Opposition Leader Tsikhanouskaya Remains Confident Change Will Come For Belarus

"We are trying. Maybe in just little steps and not the way that we ourselves would like to do it, but we are trying to do something," Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said about her efforts from exile.

"Of course, my current situation is exhausting -- physically, spiritually, and psychologically," said Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in an exclusive interview with Current Time to mark two years since the 2020 Belarusian presidential election that she and her supporters believe she won. "Of course, you sometimes feel like letting go of some of the burden of responsibility. But you know that you can't do that."

Days after the fraud-marred election handed a sixth term to strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled the country since 1994, security agents forced Tsikhanouskaya out of the country. She has been living and working in Lithuania ever since, lobbying the international community not to recognize Lukashenka and becoming the global face of her country's democratic ambitions.

"We are a political organization, so we are conducting talks with politicians in various countries," she said of her Vilnius-based office. "We have one agenda -- the release of political prisoners [in Belarus], the holding of a new election, stopping the war [in Ukraine], and supporting Ukraine."

WATCH: Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks to Current Time in Vilnius in an exclusive interview:

Belarusian Opposition Leader: 'We Underestimated The Cruelty' Of Lukashenka's Regime
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Lukashenka's government has abetted the massive Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Tsikhanouskaya believes that if Ukraine is able to repel the attack, the political backlash against the unpopular war in Belarus could be fatal for Lukashenka and the "enormous repressive machinery of his dictatorial regime."

"The results of that war will give Belarus and Belarusians a chance to move on to the next stage and to put the country on the tracks toward democracy," she told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

WATCH: RFE/RL spent a day with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya during a visit to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on June 21.

A Day In The Life Of Exiled Belarusian Leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya
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While praising "the brave and remarkable partisans" in Belarus who are hindering the war effort and Belarusian volunteers in Ukraine who are "defending the honor" of both countries, Tsikhanouskaya said she understands the sense of guilt many Belarusians feel over the war, which she sees as "a consequence of our silence," which allowed Lukashenka to remain in power for decades.

During the 2020 presidential election campaign, Tsikhanouskaya -- a teacher and translator with no political experience -- was unexpectedly thrust to the forefront of Belarus's democratic opposition. When her husband, popular blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was barred from running for president and subsequently arrested, Tsikhanouskaya took over his campaign.

WATCH: This film, produced by RFE/RL's Current Time, chronicles the events during and after the disputed presidential election in Belarus in August 2020. The film exclusively uses footage shot by participants or eyewitnesses of the protests.

Later, all the main opposition campaigns rallied around her candidacy to form an unprecedented alliance that seemed to offer Belarusians real hope of peaceful change after more than a quarter-century under Lukashenka's authoritarian rule.

When the official election results showed Lukashenka with more than 80 percent of the vote, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians across the country took to the streets, only to be met by a vicious response from the security forces. Thousands of people were beaten, detained, and tortured. Journalists, activists, and others were arrested.

Gradually, the protests died down under the government's onslaught, and Lukashenka has maintained power without making any compromises to the opposition.

"In 2020, everyone thought that the moment was about to arrive when the government would collapse because it was, of course, impossible to ignore so many people who were protesting and fighting," Tsikhanouskaya said. "But it seems we underestimated the regime's cruelty and their willingness to cling to power by any means. But it was obvious to everyone that no one wanted to live under that regime anymore."

In December 2021, Syarhey Tskikhanouski was sentenced to 18 years in prison for purportedly advocating the violent overthrow of the government. Tsikhanouskaya said she has not heard from him since he was transferred to prison after his trial.

WATCH: Who Is Syarhey Tsikhanouski And Why Is Belarus Jailing Him For 18 Years? (Originally published December 15, 2021.)

Who Is Syarhey Tsikhanouski And Why Is Belarus Jailing Him For 18 Years?
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"The children recently sent him their first letters since he was moved to the prison," she said. "Now we will wait for an answer. Soon it will be Syarhey's birthday.

"I really hope that people, especially Belarusians who have left the country and are a little freer, will send an avalanche of letters," she added. "When he was in custody during his trial…he wasn't given his letters. I know that people are writing, writing a lot, but the letters aren't delivered."

Tsikhanouskaya said her office continues to work with the now-enlarged Belarusian diaspora to "reorganize and coordinate them so that they work not just for themselves but for Belarus, for Belarusians. So that their activity would give a little more energy to people who remain in the country. So that no one is forgotten."

"We are trying," she added. "Maybe in just little steps and not the way that we ourselves would like to do it, but we are trying to do something. But we are quite restricted. We are not physically in Belarus. We are not in power there, and we don't control the police. But we are trying to do what we can."

She added that she hears criticism sometimes that she isn't doing enough or that she is "sleeping."

"But despite this, you continue working," she insisted. "Yes, you can't do everything. You can't go there and throw open the prison doors. There is a lot you can't do under such restricted circumstances. But you just keep doing your work."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.
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    Aleh Anufryienka

    Aleh Anufryienka is a correspondent for Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. Before joining the Current Time team, he worked for five years as a field correspondent, editor, and head of the video department for, the largest independent news outlet in Belarus.