The foreign politician whose visit to Ireland combines talks with high-ranking government officials and a trip to Knockshegowna Hill in Co Tipperary is rare.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled opposition leader of Belarus, often picnicked on the hill during her three summers in nearby Roscrea, hoping to spend time with her local family, who she returns to Ireland next week.
She last saw Henry Deane and his family 17 years ago and returns as the unlikely figurehead of a pro-democracy movement that vows to end the bloody and autocratic rule of Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus since 1994.
She threw herself into politics last year by replacing her jailed husband in a presidential election that the West is sure she won. In the subsequent police crackdown on huge protests against Lukashenko and the rigged vote, several people were killed, hundreds injured and 35,000 arrested; Tikhanovskaya sent her two children to safety in neighboring Lithuania and later joined them to avoid threats from the regime.
Russian support helped Lukashenko weather the initial storm, but Belarus is now facing a new wave of Western sanctions after a Ryanair jet was diverted to Minsk so an opposition activist could be arrested on board – an act Foreign Minister Simon Coveney called “State” labeled – sponsored aviation piracy “and the airline compared to a” kidnapping “.
“Ireland is a country that is affected by this Ryanair case, it is involved, so it can initiate” [legal] Proceedings against the regime. This will be one of the main topics of our talks, ”says Tikhanovskaya, who Coveney is expected to meet on a visit starting next Tuesday.
“And we cannot talk about the Ryanair case separately from all the torture and repression that is going on in Belarus. All of this is due to Lukashenko’s sense of impunity, ”she says from her office in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
I haven’t felt safe since the day I gave mine [candidate’s] Documents to the electoral commission last year
UN Special Rapporteur Anais Marin this week called on Lukashenko (66) to release some 530 Belarusians who human rights groups consider political prisoners, describing the arrest of opposition leader Roman Protasevich on the diverted Ryanair flight as “a form of purge sent to the practiced “reminiscent of totalitarian states”.
Minsk cited a fake bomb threat when telling the plane to land while it was flying from Greece to Lithuania, and Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who subsequently “confessed” to various crimes on Belarusian state television, in statements, theirs being theirs Supporters say they were clearly written and forced.
Protasevich’s parents fear he was tortured by Lukashenko’s infamous security service – still called the KGB – and spent 14 months in prison.
“I haven’t felt safe since the day I gave mine [candidate’s] Documents to the electoral commission last year. But of course we think twice about our travel plans after this incident, ”she says.
“We know that we are targets of the regime, me and my entire team and all these activists who have been relocated from Belarus. Thanks to the Lithuanian government, I have personal security around me, but the rest of my people don’t, ”she explains.
“We have to be very careful and know where to go when we feel like we are being followed. The closer you are to Belarus, the closer the hands of the regime are – there are KGB officers in Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine. ”
Tikhanovskaya expects her husband – who is on trial for inciting unrest – to receive a prison sentence similar to the 14-year prison sentence handed down this week against Viktor Babariko, another opposition activist arrested last spring for guilty of it to prevent Lukashenko from competing in the box.
“I was only allowed to speak to Sergei once over the phone. We write him letters, me and the kids, but he might only get 10 percent of it. This is another way of demoralizing prisoners, ”she says.
“But he’s a strong person and really motivated … I think he faces years in prison like Babariko, but we don’t have to focus on that. We have to focus on how we can free all these people. “
Tikhanovskaya, 38, grew up in a small town in southern Belarus, studied to be a teacher and then worked as an interpreter and secretary while raising two children with Sergei, a businessman whose anger over poverty and stifling bureaucracy drove him to challenge Lukashenko.
For me this is primarily a political visit … but also a visit to a beloved country
Visiting Ireland as part of a program to help people from areas affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, she said her younger self “laughed” at the idea that she would one day return as a politician.
“A year ago I wouldn’t have believed it, let alone 17 years ago,” she says.
“Even now I don’t feel like a politician … but I feel responsible for getting my country to elections. It’s my job – and the job of the whole population – and then I can go back to a normal life. I dream of a moment when my life won’t be a struggle, ”she explains.
“But the Belarusian people have no way of giving up. How is it possible to live in a country where you are not sure, where you are afraid of being laid off every day? [for political reasons], kidnapped and put in jail? “
Tikhanovskaya believes that the regime’s brutality towards peaceful protesters has forever changed Belarusians, and a nation previously viewed as passive and suffering by its neighbors “will not forget all the people who have been tortured and imprisoned”.
She is also sure that Belarusians will remember how the Kremlin sided with Lukashenko, offering him political, financial and security support, and helping him portray the pro-democracy movement as a creation of hostile Western powers.
“Russia supported the regime, which means that Russia supported violence and torture in Belarus,” she says, adding that the Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko is not a vote of confidence in the former kolkhoz boss, but a delaying tactic, “until [Moscow] prepares his own candidate [to take over] or work out your own scenario ”.
“But this is not a Russian question, it is a question for the Belarusian people,” she emphasizes.
“It would be much wiser for Russia to enter into dialogue with our civil society and our democratic forces. We need to make these connections because there will be changes. The regime is not forever and we will always be neighbors. It would be good for our countries to build new and transparent relationships. “
The changes in Belarus and in Tikhanovskaya’s own life are being driven home by her return to Ireland, a country she first visited at the age of 14 and which showed her that “There were countries where people lived their lives could enjoy instead of just surviving ”.
“I am so happy to have the chance to return. I’ve visited a lot of countries over the past year, but none of them gave me memories like Ireland, ”she says.
“I hope to have time to see my host family in Roscrea, and then there is Knockshegowna hill, which we visited almost every day. I want to visit this place that is so full of memories.
“Of course for me this is primarily a political visit … but also a visit to a beloved country.”