The main opposition leader of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has told Global News that the support of Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne was very important to her in the immediate aftermath of the country’s disputed election.
Speaking from exile in Vilnius, Lithuania — where she fled in the wake of the Aug. 9 vote — she said Champagne reached out to her just after she arrived from Belarus.
“I am so grateful to Canada, because Mr. Champagne was the first person who called me when I came from Belarus. I was so inexperienced. I didn’t know what to talk about with foreign leaders, but he was so kind. He was so supportive,” she said.
“He was just talking to me like a friend. And I understood that foreign politicians, they are not like Belarusian politicians, they are usual people. He really inspired me for the future fight, because I was so upset, I was so stressed by my leaving Belarus.”
Tsikhanouskaya joined her two children in Lithuania, having sent them to the neighbouring country during the election campaign.
Outgoing president since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko, claimed victory in the August ballot, with more than 80 per cent of the vote — a result dismissed by the European Union as neither free nor fair.
Tsikhanouskaya, 38, entered the race after her husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a blogger and opposition activist, was jailed in late May.
On Oct. 10, she spoke to him on the phone for the first time since he was arrested.
“He was upset, because he asked how (are the) children, and I told him that our youngest daughter, she’s crying every evening. ‘Where is my daddy?’ And she’s only five. But she, I think, she realizes that it’s too long that he’s absent,” said Tsikhanouskaya.
“He couldn’t talk a lot, because, as I understood, there were people with him who didn’t let him (say) what he wanted.”
Tsikhanouski is among a group of opposition activists and politicians jailed before and after the election.
All eight members of the opposition Coordination Council are now jailed, under house arrest or outside of the country.
Nobel laureate in literature Svetlana Alexievich is in Germany for medical treatment, but says she will return to Belarus.
Tsikhanouskaya says that is still not possible for her.
“I had the intention to come back to Belarus, just to support the Belarusian people, but we weighed it — for and against — and just decided that I would be more useful here, and safe, than in jail in Belarus, because I’m sure that as (soon as) I pass the border, I will be jailed,” said Tsikhanouskaya.
On Friday, Belarusian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Tsikhanouskaya, accusing her of “attempts to overthrow constitutional order” and threatening Belarus’s national security.
On the same day in Vilnius, she met with Champagne in person, where the Canadian foreign minister called the Belarus elections “fraudulent.”
“Canada will always be on your side,” he said after the meeting. “In fact, I believe you can expect that the entire international community will be together with you and the people of Belarus for the democratic future of your country.”
Canada has joined the United States and the European Union in introducing sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for vote-rigging and a crackdown on protests.
Tsikhanouskaya is thankful for the foreign intervention, but thinks the West can do even more.
“We suppose that this list is too short. And now I know the expanding of this list is (under) discussion.”
Lukashenko is aided by support from neighbouring Russia.
The Kremlin has accused the West of meddling in Belarus, but Tsikhanouskaya insists Russia must be at the table in any future mediation talks.
“I’m sure that all the neighbouring leaders of all the neighbouring countries should be involved in this mediation, including Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland,” she said.
“After two months, we have seen no reply from our authorities (in Belarus). That’s why we started to ask for mediation and the Kremlin, the representative of Russia, has to be in this mediation campaign on the basis of overseeing.”
Every weekend since the disputed election, thousands of Belarusian people have taken to the streets to demand free and fair elections, and to ask for Lukashenko to resign.
Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Minsk on Sunday, despite a threat by officials to use firearms against protesters.
Since August they have been met with a violent police crackdown, including accusations that police shot and killed an unarmed protester.
Human rights groups have also accused authorities of systematic beatings and torture of detained demonstrators.
Tsikhanouskaya is demanding all police violence be stopped, that political prisoners be freed, and that Lukashenko resign by Oct. 25.
Otherwise, she says there will be a huge nationwide strike on Monday, Oct. 26.
“I’m sure that we will get this dialogue through the pressure we put on authorities, inward pressure and outside pressure. They will not have a choice to do anything else, because they see already that Belarusian people will not step away,” she said.
“We will not be able to live with (Lukashenko) in such a regime anymore. These protests can transform somehow, being in different forms, but they will continue. The Belarusians’ will will not be changed.”