Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been living in exile for almost a year. She fled Belarus last August after being detained in the wake of a disputed presidential election in which, as a stand-in candidate for the opposition, she became the figurehead for anti-regime protests.
Now, after the unexplained death of Vitaly Shishov, a young anti-regime activist living in Ukraine, the leader of Belarus’s opposition fears not only for her own life and that of her team but of all Belarusian exiles.
Speaking to The Telegraph in an exclusive interview, she called for Western nations to offer Belarusian dissidents abroad training in counter-spycraft to help protect them from the regime of long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko, warning “nobody can feel safe now”.
Mr Shishov was found hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities have opened a murder investigation, while his associates have said they have “no doubt” he was killed by the Belarus government.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya said that she would closely monitor the results of the Ukrainian police investigation. But Mr Shishov’s death has sent a fresh wave of fear through the Belarusian diaspora and has troubled their leader, who wants the West to do more to help.
Protesters hold flares and stand in silence after Mr Shishov was found dead
Credit: Talha Yavuz/Anadolu Agency
“Of those who are in exile, nobody can feel safe now. We see that the regime can do anything”, she said, speaking from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, after meeting with Boris Johnson in London on Tuesday.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya said the Prime Minister was “a person who really shares common values with Belarusians”, adding that Mr Johnson “let me understand that [the UK] will be with us”.
Part of that support, she said, should come in the form of counter-spycraft training for exiled dissidents.
“Of course, Western countries can’t take care of every person, it’s impossible,” she said. “But they can offer platforms for education: how to behave when you think you are being followed by someone, what to do, who to call, where to go.”
Activists in neighbouring countries were at particular risk, suggested Ms Tsikhanouskaya: “In Eastern countries, like Ukraine, maybe it’s easier for [the Belarusian] KGB to have access.”
Mr Shishov had been working to uncover KGB activities in Ukraine and warned in a Telegram message last month that: “Even while abroad, you need to keep your ears open.”
In May, Belarus used a fake bomb threat to forcibly divert to Minsk a Ryanair flight carrying Roman Protasevich, an anti-government blogger, who was then detained. Michael O’Leary, the airline’s chief executive, said at the time that he believed at least one Belarusian KGB agent was onboard the plane.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who initially signed up as a candidate in last year’s election after her husband was arrested and prevented from running, said she and her staff feared for their wellbeing.
“I don’t think my team and I feel safe,” she said, adding that they had heard of written “bomb threats” against their buildings in Vilnius being sent to Lithuanian authorities.
As well as the numerous opposition figures forced into exile, thousands of Belarusian dissidents who have stayed in the country have been jailed as part of a brutal crackdown ordered by Mr Lukashenko.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya dismissed suggestions that sanctions could be eased in return for the release of individual political prisoners as an “old tactic of the regime” that had to be resisted. It was “immoral,” she said, and would “treat only a symptom, not the disease, which is the regime”.
Instead, she insists on the mass release of all political prisoners held in Belarus.
As well as Mr Johnson, Ms Tsikhanouskaya has met recently with Joe Biden, the US president. She welcomed the willingness of Western leaders to be publicly seen meeting with opposition figures and was “extremely grateful” for their support, however, she said there was more that could be done.
In particular, Ms Tsikhanouskaya called for more generous flexible financial support, especially for those dissidents still in Belarus, saying Western countries needed to get comfortable with cryptocurrencies as a way to pay them.
“It’s impossible to bring, physically, this financial help or to deliver it via bank cards, because these are blocked, so we have to find ways to transfer the money,” she explained. “It’s difficult because Western countries aren’t used to cryptocurrencies, they weren’t widespread [before] in Belarus either, but we have to be creative and this may be the only way.”
Asked how she saw the future of Belarus’s democracy movement, Ms Tsikhanouskaya was optimistic.
She said sanctions, which were imposed on Minsk by the West after the Ryanair incident, could be tightened but should be given time to work.
“Multiple points of pressure from outside will leave the regime with only negotiations as a way to solve this crisis,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said.
“We are civilised people, it’s so easy to sit and talk and save our nation,” she said. “The people around Lukashenko know this regime is over, that this regime has run out of road.”