UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The destinies of Belarus and Ukraine are “interdependent” and the two countries must fight together to safeguard their very existence because Russia does not consider them independent sovereign states, the leader said on Friday. of the Belarusian opposition.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania after Russian ally Alexander Lukashenko won the disputed August 2020 election that many believed she had won, said in an interview with The Associated Press that Belarus and Ukraine were once part of the Russian Empire and “there will not be a free Belarus without a free Ukraine.
As long as Russian President Vladimir Putin is in power, she said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, there will be constant threats to the security of Ukraine – and Belarus’ western border. .
Tsikhanouskaya said neither country wanted to be part of another Russian or Soviet empire.
“Belarus is therefore part of this problem and this problem, this crisis, must be solved in this context,” he said.
Lukashenko had to back Russia after he invaded Ukraine on February 24, she said, because Putin backed him after the mass protests against the official 2020 election results that gave the Belarusian president a sixth term with 80% of the vote.
Since its invasion, Russia has used Belarus as a jumping off point to send troops to Ukraine, and Moscow and Minsk have maintained close military ties.
Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, said last month that Belarusian warplanes had been modified to carry nuclear weapons under his deal with Russia. And he warned the United States and its allies against carrying out a “provocation” against Belarus, saying “targets have been selected” for retaliation.
Tsikhanouskaya said the war in Ukraine was “extremely unexpected” and that some Belarusians are particularly opposed to the war “against Ukrainians, our brothers and sisters”.
Tsikhanouskaya said more than two years after fleeing to Lithuania, the opposition has recorded “many achievements” – first and foremost that “people are not giving up” despite the “terror and repression” of the Lukashenko’s regime and his imprisonment of more than a thousand political prisoners, including her own husband.
The opposition “has managed to build a coalition of democratic countries that are fighting alongside us, fighting this regime, creating multiple pressure points,” she said.
There are now six sanctions packages, pushed by the opposition, against the Lukashenko regime. The sanctions have put pressure on the president, forcing him to focus solely on staying in power rather than what is best for the country, she said.
Tsikhanouskaya said Lukashenko and his supporters are adept at circumventing sanctions by using third parties. One way to prevent this is for the European Union to follow the United States and impose secondary sanctions, she said.
She urged the international community both to keep up the pressure on Lukashenko — suggesting new sanctions on Belarusian timber, potash and steel exports — and to help Belarusian civil society, including human rights defenders. man, “people of culture, politicians who fight with this regime in order to have the energy to continue.
Thousands of people have been imprisoned since February 24 for opposing the war in Ukraine, she said, praising saboteurs who disrupted rail traffic from Russia to Ukraine via Belarus and who sent information about the shipments to the Ukrainian military, an act that risked the death penalty.
“People are scared, of course,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “We live like in a gulag in Belarus, but people have this energy to carry on.”
The opposition organized something like a government in exile, Tsikhanouskaya said. Thanks to technology, she said she could communicate with Belarusians, and now they remain “in safe mode”, ready for a “new wave of revolution when the time comes”.
She predicted there will be a “window of opportunity” for the Belarusian people, likely linked to victory in Ukraine, but no one knows how long that will take.
“Our task is not to burn out when the time comes, to have that energy, to continue to have that mobilization plan, that transition plan,” Tsikhanouskaya said, “and we hope it doesn’t take too long. because time is very important to Ukrainians, time is very important to our political prisoners, and time is actually important to the world,” she said.
Tsikhanouskaya came after her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was arrested two days after declaring his candidacy for the 2020 presidential election. The video blogger and popular activist known for his anti-Lukashenko slogan “Stop the cockroach” was sentenced last December to 18 years in prison on charges widely seen as politically motivated.
She said her husband had been in a tiny punishment cell for more than a month, adding that conditions for political prisoners were much worse than for ordinary criminals. She fears for him and thousands of other political prisoners as winter approaches because the temperature inside their cells is no warmer than outside.
Tsikhanouskaya said she came to the annual meeting of world leaders to give a voice to the people “who fight dictatorship” and to urge that Lukashenko be held accountable for his crimes.
She said she really understood the importance of focusing on Ukraine, “but we mustn’t forget the role of Belarus in this regional crisis, and we mustn’t forget the people in Belarus who are also fighting and are also suffering because of the war and because of the dictator who rules our country.
Edith M. Lederer is the UN’s chief correspondent for the Associated Press and has covered international affairs for more than half a century. For more AP coverage of the United Nations General Assembly, visit https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly.