Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Losing democracy is easy

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is a National Leader of Belarus and Head of the United Transition Cabinet. Independent observers agree she won the presidential election on August 9 2020 against the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka. As the leader of the Belarusian democratic movement she has visited many countries, gathering support and advocating for the release of more than 1500 political prisoners and a peaceful transition of power through free and fair elections. Tsikhanouskaya entered the 2020 election after her husband Siarhei Tsikhanousky was arrested for voicing his presidential aspirations. Lukashenka publicly dismissed her as a “housewife,” saying that a woman cannot become president. Nonetheless Tsikhanouskaya united and successfully led the democratic coalition. She is a recipient of the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament, 2022 International Four Freedoms Award, and Charlemagne Prize. In 2021 and 2022 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

One of my first visits in my still dawning political career was to Berlin. Now I have had a chance to walk through the Brandenburg Gate again. It amazes me every time. The city witnessed the greatest tyranny, but it has also become a symbol of unity and freedom. It showed us how fast and suddenly changes can happen.

I remember my meeting with Chancellor Merkel during that visit. She was so kind and spoke to me as if I was her granddaughter. Perhaps she saw me as too idealistic or naive when I spoke about our fight in Belarus for freedom. I also have a dream of a Europe that we will build together. A Europe that includes Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. Peaceful, prosperous. free of tyranny and oppression. A Europe based on the values of freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. Values that we all share.

However the main value of Europe is democracy. It is democracy that makes Europe so attractive and so successful. In free countries, like Germany, democracy is like air. You just live in it and enjoy it. Therefore, many young people take democracy for granted. What we saw in Poland recently was truly remarkable. The peaceful transition of power through elections. This is something that we in Belarus can only dream about.

Democracy is much more vulnerable than it seems. I was the age of my son when we lost democracy in Belarus. We didn’t even notice how quickly the new homegrown president dismissed the parliament and courts and established a dictatorship. He appealed to people’s emotions, promised to bring the order. Soon, he got rid of political opponents who dared to challenge him. They just disappeared, leaving no traces.

We were taught – it’s not your business. Government knows better. They told us – sit quietly, don’t stick out. And I was one of those who lived her life and was not interested in politics. But as Pericles said, “If you don’t take an interest in politics, it doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you”.

Politics came to my life unexpectedly. In 2020, my husband Siarhei, who was a popular blogger, was arrested. It happened immediately after he announced his run for President. To support him, I decided to run in his place. And I did it out of love for my husband. To my big surprise I was allowed to register as a candidate. Maybe Lukashenka didn’t take me seriously. It was a joke for him. He said that our constitution “was not for women” and that a woman can not be the president. We proved him wrong. He lost those elections, but refused to go. The dictator unleashed terror against his own people which has not stopped for a single day since then.

We are paying a big price for our desire to live in a democracy. Thousands have been imprisoned and tortured: dozens killed. This is also the price we pay for that mistake we made 30 years ago, when we neglected democracy and allowed dictatorship to settle in our country. Don’t make this mistake. Cherish and protect your democracy. Participate in politics. Don’t allow anyone to seize your freedoms and your rights.

Remember; losing democracy is easy. Winning it back is the hard part.Today, as democracy is under attack by tyrants and terrorists, it’s more important than ever to unite against the forces that want to undermine our values.The fight for democracy is not a local issue, but a global one. Because tyranny is like cancer. If it is not treated completely, it only grows and spills over to other nations.

This is what happened to Belarus. Feeling impunity, Lukashenka’s regime became a threat not only to Belarusians, but to the whole region and entire Europe. It became a co-aggressor in the Russian war against Ukraine, and now it blackmails the West with nuclear weapons.

Nine million of my people are hostages in their own country. Thousands became political prisoners. One of them is my husband. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison, and I have not heard anything about him since April. Recently, my daughter asked, “Mum, is our Daddy alive? When can we go home?” Our children deserve a normal childhood, without prisons, without wars, without exile.

I want them to fully enjoy democracy – something that I never had a chance to do. And it gives me motivation to continue my personal fight. I want them to be proud of their country, and not to think about emigrating somewhere abroad. I want them to take responsibility for their lives and their future. I want them to be critical, and to challenge everything they hear. And I will never be telling them: don’t stick out. I will tell them: be yourself, and do what you think is right.

During the last three years I have learned a few lessons. Number one; tyrants can not be appeased or re-educated. Any attempts to make a deal are seen by them as weakness. Democracies must show their teeth.

Number two; the fight for freedom cannot be won alone. Democracy wins when we all stand together and confront tyranny no matter where or when it appears.

And lesson number three; democracy is not a free gift. It must be cherished and protected. Only when citizens are active, when they vote and protest if needed, democracy will flourish. If it does, then the victory of Belarusians over the dictatorial regime of Lukashenka will be inevitable. The victory of Ukraine over Russian imperialism will be a matter of time and our solidarity. And the victory of democracy over tyranny is our common task and duty.

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