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Pulling Levers in Exile, Belarus Opposition Leader Tries to Stay Relevant

VILNIUS, Lithuania — She has met Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and President Emmanuel Macron of France. Just this week, she was feted in Washington, where she was received by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

But while Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the unlikely pro-democracy leader from Belarus, may have little trouble getting a meeting, her high-flying company only underscores her predicament.

It’s been almost a year since Ms. Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee Belarus after claiming victory in presidential elections. Now the challenge she faces is how to maintain influence in Belarus from abroad. The support of Western leaders may help, but go only so far.

Still, the meetings are part Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s strategy to build a broad Western phalanx against the Belarus dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, who has limited her ability to challenge him inside the country, where her return would mean certain imprisonment.

Only months ago, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand that Mr. Lukashenko resign. It was a rare democratic outburst in an eastern European country — outside the European Union and NATO — that has carefully tried to maneuver between Russia and the West, but has turned to Moscow as a primary source of support.

But now opposition figures are disappearing into prisons, and protests are dwindling.

“Now it’s impossible to fight openly,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said. “It’s difficult to ask people to go out for demonstrations because of a sense of fear. They see the brutality of the regime, that the most outstanding leaders and prominent figures are in jail. It’s really scary.”

Unable to encourage protests inside Belarus, and with Moscow supporting Mr. Lukashenko, Ms. Tikhanovskaya is using the primary tool available to her in exile: Western support.

This week, she had meetings at the State Department, the White House, the Senate and attended the launch of the Friends of Belarus Caucus in the House of Representatives.

“I asked the U.S. to be the guarantors of our independence,” she told the Voice of America on Tuesday after meeting with Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser.

In a series of meetings, she sought more comprehensive sanctions on Belarus’s elites and businesses, to show them that it was becoming more costly for them to support Lukashenko.”

Though there were statements of support and admiration from members of Congress and the Washington elite, no new measures were announced.

She and her team also sought to postpone a nearly $1 billion planned disbursement by the International Monetary Fund to Belarus, but have so far been unable to convince the institution to cancel the payment.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s trip will continue in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, underscoring the value of Western support — and its limits.

Her task, she said in an interview in Vilnius, Lithuania, where she and her team have made their base, was to convince her international supporters that change can come to Belarus with their assistance.

“We can’t postpone this aim because we postpone freedom of our prisoners and we have to convince other countries in this as well,” she said before leaving for the United States.

“And with these detentions, with this violence, they show that they don’t have other methods of persuading people that they are strong, except violence,” she said. “It can’t last long, really. This is like the last breaths before death, because you can’t tighten the screws endlessly.”

Some who support Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s movement worry about how it can remain relevant inside Belarus with its leader abroad.

“When you are abroad in a safe situation, then all your calls to action will be very skeptically accepted in Belarus,” said Pavel Slunkin, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Belarusian diplomat.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya was clear that local actors make the decisions, and that when she sought funding, it was for supporters in Belarus. “When they are ready, it’s they who decide, not us,” she said.

Mr. Slunkin acknowledged that Ms. Tikhanovskaya has been a tireless and effective advocate for her country internationally. Even so, the repression in Belarus is widening.

This month, the Belarus Supreme Court sentenced Viktor Babariko, a former bank chief who was barred from running for president in elections last August, to 14 years in prison for bribery and money laundering in a verdict widely seen as politically motivated.

On July 14, Belarusian law enforcement officers conducted what Amnesty International called an “unprecedented wave of searches and detentions,” raiding the offices of at least a dozen civil society and human rights organizations and opposition groups.

In the past year, more than 35,000 people have been detained, according to the United Nations. Tens of thousands of Belarusians have fled abroad. The list of political prisoners kept by the human rights organization Viasna, itself raided recently, includes 577 individuals.

In May, a European plane traveling through Belarus’ airspace was forced to land in Minsk, where Roman Protasevich, a prominent Belarusian dissident aboard, was seized.

The environment was “very dangerous,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya acknowledged, but she insisted she and her supporters could still be effective.

“God bless the internet,” she said. “I am in constant dialogue with people who are on the ground. I don’t feel like I am in exile.”

There are complications as she tries to coordinate the opposition from Lithuania, which borders Belarus and where she and her team were give special diplomatic status in early July.

“The more time you spend abroad, the more time you are detached from the public you represent,” Artyom Shraibman, founder of Sense Analytics and a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said by phone from his self-imposed exile from Belarus in Ukraine.

“If we are honest, spending a year outside of the country where the society is changing and you have not been observing it — you are only communicating with the part of society that is as engaged as you are.”

Many experts, like Mr. Slunkin, believe the key way to resolve the crisis is to increase the price of Russian support for Belarus. Ms. Tikhanovskaya has been careful not to criticize Moscow openly, but neither have they succeeded in reaching out to Russian officials.

“She is being perceived by many as being pro-Western, and unacceptable to Moscow, which is true,” Mr. Shraibman said. “And this is not her choice.”

With everything she does, Ms. Tikhanovskaya said, she is mindful of how her actions can affect people behind bars in Belarus, including her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, who ran a popular YouTube channel before announcing his own candidacy for president.

He, like Mr. Babariko, and a prominent opposition politician, Valery Tsepkalo, was barred from running and jailed ahead of the ballot. Ms. Tikhanovskaya collected signatures for her candidacy and ran in the place of her husband.

In detention since May 2020, he is currently on trial, accused of organizing riots and “inciting social hatred.”

“I’m always keeping in mind that my husband is a hostage, the same as thousands of people,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said.

But she was adamant that she wants to keep the promise she campaigned on last August: new elections in which she is not necessarily on the ballot.

“I’m the same woman, already with experience, already with more braveness than I had before. But look, I’m not I’m not making my career here. After elections, I will step away from all this with ease.”

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