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Leader of the Belarusian democratic movement Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks to the press during a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on Nov. 14.JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, who is visiting Canada to seek tougher sanctions on Minsk, predicts her country’s soldiers would defect and lay down their weapons if ordered to join Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who many believe won the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, will attend the Halifax Security Forum this week before meeting with the federal government in Ottawa. It’s her first official visit to Canada.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko retained his hold on power after the disputed election, despite widespread allegations of voting fraud, by crushing mass demonstrations against him. His only staunch ally has been Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he depends on Moscow politically and economically.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya calls contemporary Belarus a “North Korea in the heart of Europe” because of the way Mr. Lukashenko has used the presidential office to repress citizens.

In an interview Tuesday, she said she expects to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly the week of Nov. 21. She said she will ask Canada to increase sanctions on Belarus because of continuing repression and the role Mr. Lukashenko has played in assisting Mr. Putin’s assault on Ukraine.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya wants Canada in concert with the United States, Britain and Europe to not only add more sanctions – on industrial sectors such as wood – but also close loopholes that are allowing Belarus to skirt economic restrictions. For instance, she said, the country is re-routing trade through third countries such as Kazakhstan.

“There are so many loopholes left that the regime can easily circumvent the sanctions imposed,” she said.

Finally, she is asking Western allies for funding for independent Belarusian media, human-rights defenders and other civil-society groups.

Canada’s biggest military deployment right now is in Latvia, with about 600 soldiers located roughly 275 kilometres from the border with Belarus.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said she will press Canada on how Belarus’s independence is being eroded by Mr. Lukashenko’s fealty to Mr. Putin.

“He’s selling our country piece by piece to the Kremlin.”

Belarus allowed Russia to mount part of its February military assault on Ukraine from its territory. And Russia is once again massing troops in Belarus – as many as 9,000 so far, as well as military equipment.

In October, Mr. Lukashenko had ordered troops to deploy with Russian forces near Ukraine in response to what he said was a clear threat to Belarus from Kyiv and its backers in the West.

Military experts say it’s hard to imagine Russia has the capability of opening another front in the war. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya predicts it would sink Mr. Lukashenko if he ordered Belarusian troops to fight Ukraine.

It “would be political suicide” for him and would “destabilize an already destabilized situation in Belarus,” she said.

Last week, Jocelyn Kinnear, Canada’s ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, decried the continuing “brutal and unprecedented crackdown on defenders of democracy in Belarus.”

In the statement on behalf of nearly 40 countries, Ms. Kinnear said credible estimates peg the number of political prisoners in Belarus at more than 1,350 including “journalists, media actors, opposition figures, and human rights defenders.”

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said Mr. Lukashenko has been able to remain in Mr. Putin’s shadow over the past eight months because the world’s attention has been focused on Moscow rather than Minsk.

“The war for Lukashenko is very comfortable. It’s easy to hide his crimes against people behind such a big war and crisis,” she said.

Mr. Lukashenko’s support for Mr. Putin should not be obscured, she added: “Let’s remember there are two main criminals.”

She also worries that Russia could hide nuclear weapons in Belarus, noting the Belarusian part of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is closed to interlopers as a result of the 1986 nuclear disaster: “It’s rather easy to hide equipment in Chernobyl forest.”

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, dissident Sergei Tikhanovsky, was jailed by Belarus in 2021 for 18 years in a trial she condemned as revenge for standing up to Mr. Lukashenko.

The Belarusian opposition leader, who lives in neighbouring Lithuania with her children, said her country’s citizens have to plan for what would follow a Ukrainian victory in the battle with Russia.

If Kyiv wins, she said, “it means that the Kremlin is weak and hence Lukashenko is weak.” She believes the fates of Ukraine and Belarus are intertwined.

“We have absolutely different contexts or situations but we have one enemy: the imperialistic ambitions of Russia.”

The Halifax Security Forum, now in its 14th year, is funded in part by Canada’s Department of National Defence and brings together politicians and decision makers from the U.S., including more than 10 members of Congress, as well as from Europe and other Western allies. Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister is also attending.

Russia’s military assault on Ukraine will feature prominently this year with more than two dozen Ukrainians participating, including Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will address at the forum Nov. 19.

With files from Reuters