A mood of celebration rippled through the amphitheater Émile Boutmy at Sciences Po Friday afternoon. News had broken earlier in the morning that Ales Bialiatski, the jailed Belarusian human rights activist, was among those who had won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement seemed to brighten the spirits of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the democratic opposition movement in Belarus, who had been invited to speak at the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA). The mere sight of Tsikhanouskaya through the doorway silenced the talkative crowd of students, who greeted the former English-teacher-turned-activist with thunderous applause, smiles and cheers.
In her address, S. Tsikhanouskaya called A. Bialiatski a « freedom fighter and a symbol of the global fight for human rights.” She noted that although he is in prison today, “his work continues.”
S. Tsikhanouskaya, a self-described “former housewife,” painted a grim picture of life in her homeland. Belarus, she said, is a place where “the innocent are locked up by the guilty”, and the government uses political prisoners as bargaining chips. Her fifteen minute speech was peppered with dark imagery of prison cells where political detainees are forced to sleep on metal bars, if they can sleep at all.
Among those prisoners is Sergei Tikhanovsky, her own husband, who is a blogger and critic of disputed president Alexander Lukashenko. Tikhanovsky was arrested in 2020 during an attempt to run for president against A. Lukashenko. He was sentenced to 18 years in jail, a verdict Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called “political revenge.” So she stepped in to run for the country’s highest office instead.
Confidence in a New Generation
S. Tsikhanouskaya’s speech was also full of hope and optimism that a new generation can finally bring freedom to people to Belarus. In one memorable moment that brought more than a few to tears : a Belarusian student stood up to speak.
She told S. Tsikhanouskaya: “I’m one of those kids who are here also because of the [A. Lukashenko] regime, because all my life I knew there is no future for me in Belarus, that I had to leave, I had to go away. But when I went away, I realized that it’s in Belarus where my heart belongs.”
She went on to tell the audience that many of her Belarusian friends in exile, “smart kids,” felt conflicted about whether they should seize opportunities in Europe or, instead, return home to fight for freedom in Belarus. S. Tsikhanouskaya then described how she herself had an opportunity to relocate to Ireland, but felt she had no choice but to return to Belarus.
“My advice for people is to study, to get knowledge, to see how the democratic world is organized, how people respect each other, how people respect the law, and bring this knowledge back to Belarus. Because sooner or later Belarus will be free and we will need a huge amount of specialists who know how to organize normal life and normal institutions.”Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Support Despite Challenges Ahead
During her visit to Paris, S. Tsikhanousaya also met with various high ranking members of the French government. She said she was “Thankful to France for your unwavering support” adding that one day she would tell her husband about the warm welcome she received and how “the people of France stood for Belarusians.”
Also in the audience was Maximilian Feske, a German student who had spent a summer exchange program in Belarus. M. Feske said he would like to see Germany protect and support the Belarussian diaspora in Germany, and make it easier for them to get humanitarian visas. “When I went [to Belarus] I was so fascinated and struck by the courage of students in our age group,” Fester said. “I think there was hope already … I thought especially the young generation would not put up with Lukashenko’s regime anymore ”
Tsikhanouskaya is the mother of two young children. In the final question from the audience, she was asked how she explains her life and struggle to her kids. She admitted how painful it is when her 7-year-old daughter asks when she can finally see her imprisoned dad again. But she reiterated: “I believe my children will one day forgive me because they will understand that I sacrificed time with them for higher purposes.”
I’ll leave you today with the message that Tsikhanouskaya gave to our student body :
“In Belarus, our future leaders are waiting in prison. The building of the prison is not beautiful, but inside there are beautiful minds with warm hearts and inspiring dreams. Just imagine the country that they will build. Just imagine the world that you will build together with them.
Photo Credit : David LUBBOCK