Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was almost the next president of Belarus.
Last month, she ran for the nation's highest office despite having no political experience. She joined the race after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was previously a presidential candidate himself, was detained on charges of inciting violence ahead of the Aug. 9 presidential election. Tikhanovskaya's platform was for Belarus to release political prisoners, including her husband and other political candidates, and to hold new free and fair elections.
Many in Belarus and across Europe say the election was rigged and that Tikhanovskaya is the true president. After the election, she fled to Vilnius in Lithuania, from where she has been leading the Belarusian opposition movement. She has also been meeting with United Nations and European Union officials, advocating for sanctions against Belarusian officials including President Alexander Lukashenko.
She spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about what it's like to suddenly be thrust into the spotlight as Belarus' opposition leader.
Marco Werman: To start off, just yesterday, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, held a secret unannounced inauguration for himself. He took the oath of office. What do you make of this moment as you look on from Lithuania?
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: You know, it was expected that he will make this in secret because we see that he's afraid of his people. He doesn't feel the support of his people. But it doesn't make any sense because he was, in the eyes of Belarusian people, he was illegitimate. Just right after the 9th of August. And he is still illegitimate now. So, nothing has changed since his secret inauguration.
Lukashenko, we have to remember, has been the president of Belarus for 26 years and he says he won. You and many others see a rigged election. Why did you leave Belarus? Why did you not stay and fight?
Why was I kicked out of Belarus, you mean?
Well, are you saying you were kicked out, or did you leave voluntarily?
Oh ... the fact is that I'm not in Belarus. OK? I'm here. And let's say I was made to leave. But I couldn't leave, you know, my people, because it really was a frightening moment for me escaping from Belarus. And I was really, for a couple of days, I stayed shocked in Lithuania in Vilnius and I wasn't sure that I would continue struggling. But I got such support from Belarus and people who understood my action, why I left Belarus. And, just — we have to move on until victory.
You've taken more leadership roles recently, making strong statements in front of the UN and the EU. Are you just pushing ahead, acting as president, in some ways? I mean, do you see yourself as the true president of Belarus, but in exile?
In reality, it doesn't matter how people call me because people call me a national leader and symbol of freedom and a national elected president. I feel myself as a person who is with the Belarusian people during the election period, who promised Belarusian people that I will not step away as long as they will fight for these changes. I will fight with them.
So, it happened that people call me a national leader, and they gave me this right to represent the majority of people who don't want Lukashenko anymore. So, I use this right and speak on behalf of Belarusian people. So, I never say I'm the president of the Republic of Belarus, no. I say that I'm the same as any other person in Belarus. But I tried to do everything I can for a future for our country.
Interestingly, the three main leaders of the opposition are women, and many of the people who've been arrested across Belarus are women. How significant is that?
It wasn't prepared action, you know, it just happened. It's our fate, I suppose. Women of Belarus understood that there is the very moment when every person matters and women don't have to be in the kitchens. Every woman found strength in herself just to stand in front of men — because we are brave. We are wonderful.
On Wednesday, you recorded a video op-ed for The New York Times. The title is “The Housewife and the Dictator.” In the print edition, it was “I Was a Stay- at-Home Mom. Now I'm Leading a Revolution.” Why is it important for you to present yourself to the American people in that way? What do you want Americans to understand about the situation in Belarus that you're facing?
I want to explain, what does it mean for Belarusian people, who lived for 26 years in dictatorship and the regime — some children were born with this dictator, and they feel this fear inside of them during their whole lives. I also was afraid during the whole election campaign, I was afraid every moment that police will come and will take me to the prison and my children will stay alone. And I wanted to show they are brave. What we are doing now, it is history. And our Belarusian people, they changed their minds, and they will never come back to the state they used to live in for 26 years.
So, I wanted all the people around to feel the situation in Belarus. Just for them to see that there was a woman who ran for the presidency just for love, and then she became a national leader, not because she needs power — because I don't want to be the president. But, just, we are fighting for the future of our children. We don't want our children to be slaves. We want to build a new country for life. That's it.
You are leading a revolution. Do you have time to reflect — have you had a chance to process in the last couple of months how your life has changed and where it could be headed?
For sure it has changed ... for sure ... What has changed most of all is the sense of responsibility because you understand that your decision, and your message, that you declare influence on the situation in the country. And, of course, my time. I feel that I'm a woman who spent 24 hours every day with my children. And now I spent a little time with them. But I understand who I'm doing this for, why I am doing this, that I need to work hard now for the future of my children. So, the sense of responsibility is what has changed greatly.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.