Belarusian opposition leader says Lukashenko’s government is “shocked”

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the arrest of a journalist critical of the regime after a Ryanair plane was diverted to Minsk was a panic misjudgment by the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.

She said in an interview: “It was really a mistake. The regime has never crossed this red line of interfering in a European area.

“This kidnapping affected all European heads of state and government because their citizens were on that flight.”

The European Union, the United Kingdom, the US and Canada joined forces on Monday to impose sanctions on several Belarusians in response to the rerouting of the May 23 Ryanair flight that traveled from Greece to Lithuania but had to land in Minsk To impose officials and organizations.

The dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was taken from the plane and arrested.

European officials, comparing the diversion to air piracy, also banned Belarusian airlines from the skies and from airports in the EU.

Lukashenko won a sixth term as president in an election last August that the EU does not recognize as legitimate.

The controversial elections resulted in months of mass demonstrations in Belarus, some of which drew up to 200,000 people.

Authorities cracked down on protesters, and human rights activists said tens of thousands were arrested, many of whom were beaten by security forces.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said EU countries thought for months that it might still be possible to argue with Mr Lukashenko – until the Ryanair flight was rerouted.

“The mood is different now,” said Landsbergis.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya was a candidate in the elections, running for her husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a popular opposition leader who had hoped to stand up against Mr. Lukashenko but was arrested in May 2020.

One day after the vote, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya had to flee the country to neighboring Lithuania, where the 38-year-old political newcomer lives in exile with her children and campaigned to rally European countries against Lukashenko.

“The regime is so scared of the unity of the Belarusians, of the unity of the European Union, the USA, this situation in Belarus that they have stopped thinking strategically. You started to think emotionally, ”Ms. Tsikhanouskaya told the Associated Press.

Her husband’s trial for violating public order, inciting hatred and inciting mass unrest is due to begin in the city of Homel on Thursday – allegations that he rejects. He faces up to 15 years imprisonment.

“The process will be closed. The trial will not take place in court, but directly in prison. Lawyers will not have a chance to tell us what is going on, ”said Ms. Tsikhanouskaya.

She expects the process to take a month or two and is not optimistic about the outcome.

“We understand that the process will not be lawful, honest, or fair. In reality, judges can spend any number of years in prison, ”she said.

For Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, this is another test of her ability, as a casual politician, not to put her own feelings for her husband above those of the many Belarusians jailed for opposing the government.

“He’s my lover. I think of him the most because I talk to my kids about him. I have to explain to them every day where their papa is and how he’s doing,” she said.

“I assure you that he will be back soon.”

She must “separate all these feelings from political duties, because your political duty is to release them all,” said Ms. Tsikhanouskaya.

“This is your personal pain. You can cry into your pillow in the evening. But imagine the states in which these people are, in which states my husband is – without light, without information, without the normal living conditions. Of course it’s awful, “she said.

“But here, too, it gives me the strength not to stop, not to think about myself.”

Since he was dropped off from the Ryanair flight in Minsk, Mr. Protasevich has been shown on state television, tearfully apologized for his actions and praised Mr. Lukashenko.

His parents, opposition and others in the West believe he spoke under duress, with some saying there were signs that he was beaten – a warning no opponent of the regime can ignore.

Mr Protasevich’s friends say the 26-year-old journalist, who left his homeland in 2019, believed he was being spied on by Belarusian authorities before he was arrested on May 23.

This probably applies to many other political activists from Belarus, said Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, who, like Mr. Protasevich, had flown with Ryanair from Greece to Lithuania a week earlier.

When she traveled to Europe to raise awareness of Belarus, she said she felt “more or less” safe.

“The local people (in Belarus) do not have the legal protection that the European Union has,” she said.

Beyond the immediate fate of Mr. Protasevich, her husband and others like you, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said that difficult times are ahead for her country.

“This crisis is getting worse,” she said.

If the Minsk authorities really cared about the people, “they would enter into dialogue with Belarusians, release political prisoners and resolve this crisis in a civilized way,” she added.

“I imagine new elections this fall. That is our goal.”

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