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Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian leader in exile, stands with a portrait of her jailed husband. Syarhey Tsikhanouski, at her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on March 14.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

When Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya heard the news last month that Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was dead, her mind went straight to the fate of another political prisoner in danger: her husband.

Mr. Navalny’s death in an Arctic prison camp – which his allies believe was murder, ordered by the Kremlin – brought home an awful reality for Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, whom many in Belarus recognize as their country’s president-in-exile. No one, not even her husband’s lawyers, had heard from Syarhey Tsikhanouski for a year.

“Do I actually know if my husband is alive? Of course, I believe he is, but not having had any possibility to contact him for one year already, I don’t know what’s going on there. And people are mistreated, people are in solitary there,” said Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, a schoolteacher who was thrust into politics in 2020 when Mr. Tsikhanouski was jailed after announcing his intent to challenge dictator Alexander Lukashenko in an election.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya campaigned in her husband’s stead – and is widely believed to have defeated Mr. Lukashenko in the August, 2020, election, only to see the results falsified by the regime.

Almost four years later, she admits that she struggles with the pressures and risks of a job she never wanted. She carries her files around her office in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in a black binder with her husband’s face on it, a constant reminder of just how high the stakes are for her and for Belarus, a landlocked country in Central Europe that’s wedged between Russia, the eastern edge of NATO and the battlefield Mr. Putin has created in Ukraine.

“Every day life is full of pain,” is the blunt answer she gives when she’s asked how she’s dealing with it all. “You’re trying to keep your spirit up, thanks to the Belarusian people. And you have a responsibility to your country and to the political prisoners, so you continue to work. But it’s not a life people deserve.”

She said there has been no communication with her husband since March 9, 2023, the last time his lawyer was allowed to visit him. She said the lawyers said he appeared “exhausted” then, after being kept in an isolation cell, but was full of ideas about how Ms. Tsikhanouskaya could continue to challenge the Lukashenko regime. “I don’t know how he looks now,” she added.

Mr. Tsikahnouski is just one of more than 1,400 recognized political prisoners currently being held in Belarus.

Belarus election reinforces Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule despite opposition’s call for boycott

One of the things that frustrates Ms. Tsikhanouskaya most is the West’s on-and-off interest in her country – and the collective unwillingness to confront Mr. Lukashenko and his ally in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya says Russia has been effectively occupying her country since Mr. Putin deployed troops into Belarus ahead of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

“When Alexey Navalny was killed, my first reaction was: What will be the reaction of the democratic world? Will that show dictators that murders of political opponents will be punished and will not be left without any consequences? Because the lives of many political prisoners depend on it.”

So far, she said, the response hasn’t been nearly firm enough. “I can’t say the reaction was strong enough, the reaction we see at the moment. Most countries have been limited to words of condemnation, deep condolences, but no actions.”

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya is heading to Canada next month to try to rally more support for her country. She praised Ottawa for the regular packages of sanctions it has introduced against Belarusian officials since 2020 and said she’s hoping to convince Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to provide additional aid to independent Belarusian media and pro-democracy activists.

She also hopes Canada will follow the United States in launching a formal strategic dialogue with her government-in-exile. As part of that engagement, the U.S. Agency for International Development recently opened a special Belarus-focused office in Vilnius.

“It would be wonderful if Canada also sent such a special person to work with us. It’s also a very important political message: ‘We don’t send ambassadors to illegitimate Lukashenko, but we send people – ambassadors, special envoys, call it like you want – to work with the voice of real Belarusians.’”

The risks that Russian and Belarusian dissidents face even in exile were highlighted again this week when Mr. Navalny’s former chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, was briefly hospitalized Tuesday after unknown assailants attacked him with a meat hammer outside his home in Vilnius, which has become a hub for both the Russian and Belarusian opposition movements.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said her team are constantly receiving training about how to act if they think they’re being followed. They’re also regularly reminded to not discuss certain topics in public places.

Tensions are high around the region ahead of presidential elections in Russia this weekend, which are expected to deliver another six-year term to Mr. Putin, who has ruled his country for almost as long as Mr. Lukashenko has maintained his grip on Belarus.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said she didn’t want to give Western governments any advice on whether or not they should repeat the steps they took after the 2020 vote in Belarus or refuse to recognize the election in Russia. But she believes democratic change will come to her country before it reaches Moscow.

In Russia, she said, there are still “many, many people” who support Mr. Putin and the war in Ukraine. In Belarus, she said, Mr. Lukashenko has no genuine support. “Our context is different. In Belarus, you will never see that this Z or V signs on the streets,” she said, referring to the letters used in Russia to signify support for the invasion of Ukraine. “Nobody in Belarus will say that ‘I’m for the war’ or ‘Ukraine is our enemy.’”

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