Mass protests, hijacked planes, and Chernobyl children: Sveta leads Belarus charge for change 

Political unrest is nothing new for Belarusians but a challenge to Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year reign by reluctant leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is raising hopes that the former Soviet state is on the cusp of true change. Maresa Fagan examines the Irish connections with Belarus
Mass protests, hijacked planes, and Chernobyl children: Sveta leads Belarus charge for change 

Belarusian opposition supporters light their smartphones as they gather at Independence Square with the government building in the background in Minsk. Writing from exile in Lithuania last week, Sveta pledged that mass demonstrations would continue. Picture: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Last summer saw thousands of Belarusians chant her name on the streets of Minsk. But Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, or Sveta, is now hundreds of miles away, exiled in Lithuania.

The 37-year-old mother of two has garnered significant support to challenge Alexander Lukashenko, 66, often referred to as Europe's last dictator.

The political turmoil in Belarus follows allegations that the presidential election on August 9 was rigged in Lukashenko’s favour, precipitating violent clashes on the streets of Minsk, thousands of arrests, and claims of police brutality.

It did not help that Lukashenko failed to grasp the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic, telling the country's 9.5m citizens to drink more vodka, take saunas, and work harder to kill the virus.

Western outrage has grown even further this weekend and the European Union (EU) has threatened more sanctions over the forced diversion of a plane to Belarus in order to arrest an opposition journalist.

The dramatic gambit apparently ordered by the country’s authoritarian president was denounced as piracy, a hijacking and terrorism.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the crew there was a bomb threat against the plane as it was crossing through the country’s airspace and ordered it to land in the capital Minsk.

A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane – in a brazen show of force by Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century.

The goal was seemingly the arrest of Roman Protasevich, an activist and journalist who ran a popular messaging app that played a key role in helping organise massive protests against the authoritarian leader.

Sveta, a teacher, stepped forward as a reluctant candidate after her husband Sergei, a blogger and one of the leaders of the opposition, was jailed in May before he could even stand for election.

In August, Lukashenko claimed to have secured 80% of the vote — a landslide victory and repeat of the previous election — but the United States and European Union have raised eyebrows over the result and unfolding events since the ballot took place.

After the election, Tikhanovskaya set up a co-ordination council, featuring other opposition leaders such as Maria Kolesnikova, to begin the orderly transfer of power from Lukashenko and facilitate a free and fair presidential election.

She was forced, however, to flee the country for her own safety within days of the ballot, while Kolesnikova was lifted by masked men in an attempt to deport her from the country.

Lukashenko has responded by accusing Western nations of interference and rejecting demands to begin dialogue with the opposition.

Sveta's strong command of English enabled her to speak about the political situation in Belarus, according to Henry Deane of Chernobyl Lifeline project. Picture: Courtesy of Henry Deane
Sveta's strong command of English enabled her to speak about the political situation in Belarus, according to Henry Deane of Chernobyl Lifeline project. Picture: Courtesy of Henry Deane

For the past five weeks, the streets of the Belarusian capital have been besieged by hundreds of thousands of protesters, some brandishing roses, balloons, and the red and white opposition flag, in peaceful defiance of the incumbent self-styled authoritarian.

"Sveta is my president, Masha is my queen," read some of the banners carried among the sea of protesters, referencing Svetlana and Maria, who are leading the charge for change.

Roscrea connections 

One of thousands of Belarusian children impacted by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, Sveta has strong connections with Ireland. As a "Chernobyl child" she spent a decade of summers in Co Tipperary, taking respite and helping other children.

Hailing from Mikashevichi, a small Belarusian village around 40km from the Ukrainian border, she survived the devastating impacts of radioactive fallout from the Ukrainian disaster.

Henry Deane, a lifelong friend of the exiled challenger to Lukashenko, said her time spent in Ireland may have inspired Sveta's drive for change and a better life, but that she was not overtly political as a teenager.

Mr Deane, 72, who has hosted hundreds of children through his Chernobyl Lifeline project, said Sveta stood out among the others due to her strong command of English. This enabled Sveta to become a translator and spend several summers visiting Ireland’s heartland, where she developed a special bond with her “Irish family”.

Sveta first came to Roscrea in the mid-1990s as a teenager. She was popular and quickly became a mother figure for many of the children who visited from Belarus over the years.

Friendly, bright, and likeable, unlike other children, she was not afraid to speak about her home country, Mr Deane explained.

“Most of the children didn't speak about the political situation in Belarus out of fear, but Sveta did speak about it because she could speak in English and the other children would probably not know what she was saying. She would speak openly about the situation and you could tell that it was difficult for everybody and she was unhappy with it,” he said.

It did come as a surprise though, that Sveta found herself catapulted into national politics and the subject of international headlines.

“She picked up the torch from her husband, who was imprisoned, and ran with it," said Mr Deane. "She is that kind of person. She was supported during her time here and now in Belarus every man, woman, and child has backed her. She has led the people,” he said.

“Sveta was not political. This was a shock to me to see this explode on the international scene. This little girl that I had come to know was taking on the last dictator of Europe. She was gaining ground and she wasn’t afraid,” he added.

Lukashenko did not see Sveta as a threat and openly mocked her as a “little girl” who was not worth imprisoning. The momentum for change, however, continues to grow as tens of thousands of Belarusians return to the streets week after week to protest against his reign and call for his resignation.

“Up until the spring of this year, nobody spoke out about Lukashenko; nobody criticised the government. And now to see hundreds and thousands of people out on the streets chanting ‘Sveta, Sveta’, they now have a courage and bravery that they didn’t have before. They got this from Svetlana. They are not afraid to speak out now and have their voices heard,” Mr Deane said.

On past visits to Belarus, Mr Deane found that people could not speak openly and were “ill at ease” when talking about the country, but he said there is now an appetite for change and real democracy.

The recent election was far from democratic, fair, or free, according to Sveta and other opposition leaders, as well as the United Nations, US, and EU. There were no independent observers at the election.

Supporters of Sveta wore white armbands or bracelets when voting, to keep a tally of her support, and the reluctant candidate claims to have secured 60-70% of the overall vote, contrary to Lukashenko’s assertion that the "little girl" secured just 10% of votes.

Sveta attempted to complain to election authorities but was instead detained for questioning. Within days of the vote, she fled to Lithuania for her own safety and that of her two children, while her husband is among a number of political prisoners languishing behind bars.

An elderly woman reacts as police officers detain women during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, last Saturday. Picture: AP
An elderly woman reacts as police officers detain women during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, last Saturday. Picture: AP

Mr Deane likens Tikhanovskaya to Joan of Arc because she has sacrificed so much for her family and country. 

From her new base in Lithuania, Sveta has called on the UN to impose sanctions and send an international monitoring mission to document the situation on the ground.

Addressing an informal UN meeting this month, the unlikely leader said: “A nation cannot and should not be hostage to one man’s thirst for power. Belarusians have woken up; the point of no return is passed.” 

Speaking at that meeting, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney relayed Ireland’s “ongoing and deep concerns” over events since the election and called for the immediate release of those who had been “unjustly detained”.

Regardless of the outcome of the current challenge to Lukashenko's regime, Mr Deane, who remains in constant contact with Sveta, said change is certain.

“It's the biggest change in 26 years, since the end of the Soviet Union. The biggest change has already taken place. So even if things were stuck as they are right now, this change will have ripples,” he said.

Sveta, he added, is the best possible option for Belarus and does not hold any personal ambitions to lead as president. 

“She has made it clear that she is happy to be elected so that she can release the opposition leaders, including her husband, from prison and allow free and fair elections to take place with scrutiny from the EU and US. Then the Belarusian people will get the people in charge that they want," he said.

“The people have had 26 years of having no choice. They have been totally disenfranchised and have had no say in the government and who is in power."

Surviving Chernobyl 

Mr Deane’s charity, Chernobyl Lifeline, grew out of working with Adi Roche of Chernobyl Children International and was a source of great joy for him for almost three decades.

The charity, however, is closing down as there is nobody to step up and keep it going. 

“It’s quite sad. Charity is supposed to kind of hurt but in my case, it was most enjoyable. You became addicted to the sound of children laughing and having fun and you miss that,” he said.

Mr Deane said the work of Adi Roche has had a long-lasting impact in Belarus and other affected countries. 

“It shows how one little pebble dropped in the water can ripple to affect so many people," he said.

Belarus suffered significantly from the nuclear disaster, which will have consequences for more generations to come because of its effects on land and soil and the genetics of people exposed to the radioactive fallout.

Despite the political turmoil and Covid-19 pandemic, Chernobyl Children International is continuing to operate in Belarus, where 65 humanitarian staff are on the ground, providing support to thousands of vulnerable, disabled, and sick children.

Adi Roche in Vesnova, near Glusk, Belarus. She described current events against the background of a pandemic as 'worrying'.
Adi Roche in Vesnova, near Glusk, Belarus. She described current events against the background of a pandemic as 'worrying'.

Ms Roche, who spearheads the charity, said an “extraordinary unique bond” has developed between Ireland and Belarus since the Chernobyl disaster but that Covid-19 is presenting the greatest challenge for the charity in its 34-year history.

“Covid-19 is a huge problem. It is rampant in very overcrowded prison institutions but it is also rampant in institutions which are housing thousands and thousands of children,” she explained, adding the securing weekly deliveries of medicines, PPE, food, and supplies are her immediate priority.

In partnership with Unicef, the charity is continuing to provide care and support to thousands of children in hospice and institutional care. At one centre, a team of 30 nurses, carers, and doctors is caring for 174 children.

While declining to comment on the political situation, Ms Roche described current events against the background of a pandemic as “worrying”.

“In times of great uncertainty, it is the most vulnerable who pay the highest price,” Ms Roche said.

“We’re finding it extremely challenging and it is exceedingly more and more difficult to guarantee the safety of our 65-strong team. Despite the difficulties, we are managing to stay steadfast to keep all of our services running because we cannot abandon the children because we as adults run into political obstacles,” she added.

The charity, Ms Roche said, must remain committed to protecting and supporting the most fragile and vulnerable, regardless of the political landscape.

“We will be there for the long haul, regardless of what the new era in Belarusian history will bring, because I need to be able to work with everybody, past, present, and future,” she said.

“We are first and foremost a humanitarian organisation and we need to be able to continue serving those that are most fragile and most vulnerable. Otherwise it would have been 30 years of work for nothing,” she added.

At one time Lukashenko threatened to halt overseas trips arranged for Chernobyl children, sensing that it gave them a new perspective on the world and how others lived. The scenes now being witnessed in Minsk might suggest that many of Belarus's Chernobyl children have found a new voice as adults.

Old alliances 

To his advantage, Lukashenko has garnered some support from Russia, with promises by Vladimir Putin post-election to intervene if protests involved “extremist elements”. This week Putin offered Belarus a loan of more than €1bn in a move symbolic of their mutual support.

Both nations are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, made up of post-Soviet countries.

It is this old-fashioned alliance that may well keep the last dictator in Europe in situ for the moment, according to Donnacha Ó Beacháin, an expert in post-Soviet politics at the School of Law and Government in DCU.

Belarus has seen similar political unrest at election time in recent years said Mr  Ó Beacháin, who came close to being arrested while spending time there during a similarly turbulent election period in 2010.

“We’ve been here before. There were protests against elections in 2006 and 2010, 2015. Elections are a catalyst in these types of regimes for a number of reasons,” he said.

“There’s something about an election that crystalises issues for the opposition and elections tend to draw international attention on the regime,” he added.

Lukashenko, he said, is borrowing from the dictators' playbook to use an overwhelming election result to send a message that he is “immovable”. 

“Elections are used as a legitimising device to say how powerful he is,” Mr Ó Beacháin said.

While Lukashenko’s support has been on the wane for more than a decade, the opposition remains fragmented and has yet to offer up a clear candidate as a potential alternative leader.

Sveta is an “unlikely figurehead”, who has already ruled out a desire to be president, Mr Ó Beacháin noted.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya first came to Roscrea in the mid-1990s as a teenager. She became a mother figure for many of the children who visited from Belarus over the years. Picture: Courtesy of Henry Deane
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya first came to Roscrea in the mid-1990s as a teenager. She became a mother figure for many of the children who visited from Belarus over the years. Picture: Courtesy of Henry Deane

If Russia continues to back Lukashenko as Putin has done to date, he doesn’t expect the authoritarian to be dislodged from power anytime soon.

There are a lot of people who would aspire to lead the country but there is no obvious figure waiting in the wings, he said.

“We don’t know who could emerge because 26 years is a long time without the opposition being able to develop normally,” Mr Ó Beacháin said.

“It’s very dramatic what we’re seeing, these huge crowds of people that are gathering. It's really a mobilisation of civil society but it’s still very much a movement without an obvious leader,” he added.

A number of factors will determine whether the current unrest can precipitate real change, the DCU academic said. These include the strength of the state, energy resources and assets, characteristics of the regime, the nature of the opposition, and external influences.

While the EU is devising sanctions against Belarusian officials involved in alleged election rigging or the use of force to quell protesters, Mr Ó Beacháin isn't convinced that they will yield results. It has been tried before, and failed, he said, adding that Lukashenko’s alliance with Russia may see the status quo hold.

Lukashenko, he said, has two ace cards in his hand: The local support of his power ministries — police, military, and security forces — and Russia.

“Throwing flowers at a police and military force that is loyal is great for the cameras and attracts a lot of sympathy outside of Belarus but it won't actually dislodge the regime,” Mr Ó Beacháin said.

“For Putin it would be a setback if it was seen that an authoritarian figure like Lukashenko, who was in power for two decades, was overthrown because of popular protests linked to a rigged election. What type of precedent would that set for Russia?” he added.

Putin, who met with Lukashenko recently, will not want to lose another country from its natural sphere of influence, to the EU or Nato. “That’s a real red line for the Kremlin,” Mr Ó Beacháin said.

In the meantime, Lukashenko looks likely to continue facing pressure over the disputed election result.

Writing from exile in Lithuania last week, Sveta said the regime would not steal the people's victory and pledged that mass demonstrations would continue, as well as a boycott of the state apparatus.

“Contrary to what state propaganda claims, time is on our side. This regime is a giant with feet of clay. What appeared to be destined for eternity will be gone in a blink of an eye,” Tikhanovskaya wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

“All we have to do is stick together. There is no question of whether we will win. We have won already. The regime is attempting to steal that victory from us. It will not succeed,” she added.

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