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Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian opposition leader, in Vilnius, Lithuania on Dec. 11, 2020.Andrius Aleksandravicius/The Globe and Mail

It’s been a strange 2020 for everyone, but Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has had a more bewildering year than most.

A year ago, the 38-year-old was preparing to re-enter the work force after taking several years off to focus on raising her two children. By September, she hoped, she would be back working as an English teacher at a primary school in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. She was, by her own description, apolitical.

Now, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya can barely recognize her life. Her husband is in jail in Minsk, and she and her children have fled to neighbouring Lithuania, where she heads what increasingly resembles a government in exile.

Even from Vilnius, she remains the face of the ongoing uprising in Belarus. She is also increasingly recognized internationally as her country’s president-elect, the real winner of a deeply flawed Aug. 9 election, in which she stood as a candidate in her husband’s place after he was arrested for organizing anti-regime rallies. She has even changed the spelling of her name, asking media to use the Belarusian transliteration, rather than the Russian-derived “Svetlana Tikhanovskaya” that the West had only just gotten to know her by.

In exile, veterans of Belarus’s anti-Lukashenko struggle to help a new generation finish the job

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya wanted none of this. Asked to name her heroes, she pauses for a long time – as if knowing she should give a different answer – before settling on the late Princess Diana, another woman who was trapped in circumstances far beyond her control.

“All [Diana] was doing wasn’t for … power. She really wanted to help people, and she raised her sons with the same feelings. She loved people,” Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said last week during an interview at her office in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. “She is like an example for me. Of course, our [situations] are absolutely different, but I think we are similar.”

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya isn’t feeling sorry for herself. She’s quick to name as her other heroes those in Belarus – thousands of whom have been beaten and jailed since protests first erupted in the summer – who have suffered far more than she has. She’s pressing on, hoping that a combination of protests, sanctions and diplomatic isolation will finally force strongman Alexander Lukashenko to resign.

If and when Mr. Lukashenko cedes power – a prospect that looks remote at the moment – Ms. Tsikhanouskaya intends to serve as president only as long as it takes to hold a new and fair vote. After that, she says, her political career will be finished. While others, including perhaps her husband Sergey, will compete for the presidency, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya says she intends to follow her idol Princess Diana’s path and use her accidental fame to champion human-rights causes.

Protests wane

What comes next for Belarus and Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, however, is as unpredictable as the past year was unexpected.

The protest movement inside Belarus has lost much of the momentum it had in the early weeks of the uprising. Where tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, once marched through the streets of Minsk every Sunday – making it briefly seem that Mr. Lukashenko’s ouster was imminent – recent protests have been smaller and less regular.

Part of the reason for the slowdown, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya says, is the weather, as a cold Belarusian winter sets in. Fatigue is also a factor, after four months of non-stop confrontation between pro-democracy forces and the regime.

Then there’s the scale of the repression carried out by the security forces that have largely remained loyal to Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 26 years. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s advisers acknowledge that there’s growing frustration among some protesters with the opposition leadership’s insistence that people must remain peaceful even as the regime uses violence against them.

But Ms. Tsikhanouskaya says now is a time to build, not fight. “We will take this wintertime for strengthening these structures that have appeared in Belarus this year,” she said.

One of those structures is the team she has gathered around her in Vilnius, where Ms. Tsikhanouskaya has lived in exile since Aug. 11, two days after she claimed victory in an election over Mr. Lukashenko. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya fled after she was briefly detained, and threats were made against her children.

She doesn’t like to call her team a government in exile – since she feels the term recalls the failed uprising in Venezuela – but that’s effectively what they are. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya recently appointed a seven-member cabinet, with prominent Belarusians assigned responsibility for fields ranging from education and the economy to international affairs and constitutional reform. Their job, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya says, is to be ready to assume the task of government if and when Mr. Lukashenko steps aside.

They meet on an almost-daily basis in offices on the fifth floor of a glass-fronted Vilnius tower, their presence marked by the white-red-white flag of the Belarusian opposition outside the building, where it flies alongside a yellow-green-and-red Lithuanian banner.

The office has the demographics and energy of a tech startup. Young activists lounge on bright red couches, clicking at their mobile phones. A foosball table stands outside a small kitchen, though the office’s restaurant-style coffee machine gets far more attention.

While the protests inside Belarus have decelerated, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s activities have not. On Thursday, she held a virtual meeting with about two dozen “people’s ambassadors” – members of the Belarusian diaspora who have been charged with representing Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s team in their home countries.

On Friday, she was giving interviews to foreign media and preparing to fly to Germany to meet President Frank Walter-Steinmeier, the latest in a series of European leaders to welcome her since Aug. 9. (The regime claims Mr. Lukashenko won 80 per cent of the vote, to 15 per cent for Ms. Tsikhanouskaya. The opposition’s exit polls suggest the result was almost exactly the opposite.)

Slow-motion revolution

Whatever happens next, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya likely won’t be moving straight from her current office space to the presidential palace in Minsk. The fifth-floor premises were donated to the Belarusians by a Lithuanian businessman in September, shortly after Ms. Tsikhanouskaya arrived in Vilnius. Three months later, that goodwill gesture has run its course, and she and her team will soon need to find a new headquarters from which to plot their revolution.

It’s just one of many reminders that the uprising against Mr. Lukashenko wasn’t supposed to take this long. The plan, to the extent there was one, relied on the regime crumbling rapidly once the opposition showed its size, and the scale of the dictator’s unpopularity was made clear. But the country’s security forces have largely held firm.

Franak Viacorka, a former journalist who has become Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s foreign-policy adviser, says that what the opposition hadn’t factored in was how far Russia would go to prop up the regime. Whenever the government is under economic pressure, Russia provides the money that allows Mr. Lukashenko to keep paying salaries and buying loyalty.

“We don’t want them to support the protesters, we just want them not to support Lukashenko,” Mr. Viacorka said of the Kremlin. “Because without Russian support, Lukashenko wouldn’t last a day.”

Part of the problem, Mr. Viacorka says, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage don’t trust the opposition when it says it doesn’t have an agenda beyond ousting Mr. Lukashenko. The Kremlin instead sees a plot to pull Belarus, which has an economic union with Russia and is part of a Moscow-led military alliance, into Western structures such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The real reason Belarusians desire change is the different world they see when they visit Lithuania. While both countries were republics of the Soviet Union that gained their independence in 1991, the two could hardly have taken more divergent courses since then.

Mr. Lukashenko, who came to office in 1994 – in what is widely regarded as the last free and fair election to be held in Belarus – has spent the past quarter-century idealizing the Soviet past and talking about neighbouring Russia as a protective big brother.

There has even been off-and-on talk of Russia reabsorbing its neighbour, with the main stumbling block being Mr. Lukashenko’s political future in such a neo-USSR. He is believed to fancy himself leader or co-leader of a unified state; Mr. Putin doesn’t appear to rate Mr. Lukashenko as anything close to an equal.

Lithuania, meanwhile, has taken precisely the opposite direction, joining both the EU and the NATO military alliance in 2004, and adopting the euro as its official currency in 2015.

Relative prosperity has followed that westward tilt. Lithuania’s per capita gross domestic product in 2018, at just over US$19,000, was more than three times the US$6,300 in Belarus that same year. (Many other Belarusians have fled Mr. Lukashenko’s rule to Poland, which is also part of the EU and NATO, and which had a GDP per capita of US$15,400 in 2018.)

The Biden factor

Despite Russia’s support, and the regime’s surprising resilience, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya says she still believes Mr. Lukashenko’s ouster is inevitable. “Lukashenko doesn’t want to leave, and Russia supports him. But the Belarusian people don’t want him, and the whole world is supporting us. Do you feel the scale?” she says, holding out her outstretched hands, one lower than the other, to make it clear that the balance is tilted against Mr. Lukashenko.

The scales tipped even further, she says, when Joe Biden won last month’s U.S. presidential election. The president-elect has already made statements calling for a transfer of power in Belarus, and condemning the government’s use of force against peaceful protesters, something outgoing President Donald Trump has yet to do. “Every Belarusian person has been praying, ‘Please, Joe Biden, win!” she says with a laugh, before adding a prediction: “Joe Biden will be very important for the future of Belarus.”

There are plans being made for her to visit both the U.S. and Canada early in 2021, around the time of Mr. Biden’s inauguration. Her team hopes that she will be greeted as a head of state by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government – as she has been in Germany and elsewhere – and that Wayne Gretzky, whose grandfather was born in what is now Belarus, will also make some kind of statement.

Despite the support she has received in Western capitals, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya believes Canada and other countries have been overly cautious in their support for the Belarusian opposition, and overly concerned with what Russia wants for Belarus. She called on Canada – which has imposed sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko and 55 members of his regime – and other Western governments to impose sanctions on a wider list of officials. Anyone involved in election fraud, or the subsequent crackdown on the protests, should be targeted, she said.

She also hopes to see louder and more direct condemnation of the crackdown. “They have to say openly that these are crimes … that Lukashenko is a criminal. Say directly what you mean,” she says, frustration rising in her usually calm voice. “If you say that you are democratic countries, that you stand for democracy, keep your eyes on the situation in Belarus. Talk about us at every meeting. Because we are important.”

Several times over the course of a 45-minute interview, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya allows herself a chuckle at the politician she has become. It’s an almost incomprehensible change for a woman who said she never attended a protest until her husband was jailed in June and she suddenly became the face of the opposition movement.

She said she was aware of the Belarusian opposition – some of whom have been protesting against Mr. Lukashenko since the 1990s – via news coverage on state-run television. “I knew that all these people were against Lukashenko, but why? I didn’t understand. I was like a lot of others, who got their salary, lived a normal life, and didn’t want to be involved in politics.” Some of the leaders of those protests, such as veteran activist Anatoli Liabedzka, are now in her cabinet.

One the biggest challenges Ms. Tsikhanouskaya has faced is talking to her children about all that has happened. She’s decided, for now, to shield her five-year-old daughter from the truth.

“For her, we left Belarus because of COVID, and her daddy is on a business trip, and he always buys her presents, and he loves her, [but] he’s in a country where there are no phones. But my older son is 10 and he understands everything.”

What she can’t explain – to herself or to her son – is what comes next. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya is confident that the opposition will prevail, but she won’t hazard a guess about when or how that will happen. “One year ago, I couldn’t even imagine I would have a life like this,” she said, shaking her head in wonder. “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

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