Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the self-exiled former presidential candidate who has become an unlikely leader of the Belarusian opposition, says the intimidation tactics of authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka are only hardening the resolve of the tens of thousands protesting against the contentious results from last month's election that the West has called falsified.
Speaking in an interview with Current Time on September 14 as the Belarusian president met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Tsikhanouskaya called Lukashenka an "illegitimate" leader who has no authority to make agreements on behalf of the country.
Current Time is a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Lukashenka faces the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule amid unprecedented nationwide protests against the results of the August 9 presidential election that handed him a sixth five-year term.
The Belarusian people have called on Lukashenka to step down and hold free and fair elections, claiming the vote was rigged in his favor. On September 13, almost 800 demonstrators were detained in Belarus during rallies denouncing the election results.
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The 66-year-old Belarusian leader has responded to the peaceful protests with violent arrests and claims of torture by some of those who have been detained.
Show Of Control
Tsikhanouskaya, who claims to have won 60 to 70 percent of the vote, said the mass arrests on September 13 were aimed at showing the Kremlin before the talks that Lukashenka was still in control of the situation at home.
"The mass show of force by sending so many riot police to the scene of the protests was likely organized to frighten people so that they would not demonstrate. But it doesn't work anymore. People have the intention, people have the desire to live in a new Belarus without someone usurping [power]. Therefore, people cannot be stopped. The more brutal the riot police behave and the more that people are jailed, the tougher people will respond," Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania soon after the election, told Current Time in an interview via Skype.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Russia, Belarus's most important economic and strategic partner, has been closely watching the upheaval. Kremlin planners are wary of a repeat of what happened in Ukraine in 2014 when mass protests led to the ouster of the pro-Russian president there.
Underscoring the Kremlin's potential involvement in the crisis, Lukashenka and Putin have held at least five phone calls since the election, while the September 14 meeting, where Russia agreed to a $1.5 billion loan to Minsk in a gesture of support for the beleaguered Belarusian leader, was their first face-to-face encounter since the vote.
Putin gave few details about the new loan, but he also signaled support for Lukashenka in other ways and said defense cooperation would continue.
Tsikhanouskaya said any agreements with "an illegitimate" Lukashenka "will have no legal weight" and be revised by any new leadership.
The West has condemned the vote and the harsh police crackdown on opposition protesters, forcing Lukashenka to look to Moscow for support.
Instead of talking to Putin, Tsikhanouskaya called on Lukashenka to establish a dialogue with the opposition, warning that any attempt to hold an inauguration would be "illegal."
"We have always insisted on dialogue. I think that this is the best way out of the current crisis, only through dialogue. And yes...it is necessary to discuss with the current so-called authorities the transition, the peaceful organization of the next new elections," Tsikhanouskaya said, adding that the opposition Coordination Council continues to function despite the fact that the only member of the council, Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich, remains free inside Belarus after several members were either forced out of the country or detained by police.
"I think that at the moment, Mr. Putin chose a role of a waiting observer weighing the developments in our country. He indeed understands that we are friendly countries, and nobody wants to break our ties that have been established so long ago. And it is clear that the future president [of Belarus] elected legally in a fair poll, will continue to build mutually beneficial ties with Russia. We understand that Russia's role is enormous for Belarus but anything can be solved via a dialogue," Tsikhanouskaya added.
Tsikhanouskaya became an unlikely leader of the Belarusian opposition.
Her husband Syarhey, a potential challenger to Lukashenka in the August 9 presidential election, had been arrested before the vote and remains in police custody, reportedly in a jail on Minsk's outskirts. A proficient English speaker who previously was a stay-at-home mother, Tsikhanouskaya took up the mantle from her husband after he was jailed.
Tsikhanouskaya said that as soon as some sort of dialogue with Lukashenka's government is established, she will return home "to be close to people."