NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with pro-democracy opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya of Belarus, who remains in exile after challenging her country's authoritarian president.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's preferred transliteration of her Belarusian name into English.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In front of me, a few blocks away down Pennsylvania Avenue, the big dome of the Capitol rising. Behind me is one of Washington's grande dame hotels. And we're here to meet a guest of the hotel, a woman accustomed to sleeping far from the place she calls home. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya - she is the leader, the exiled leader, of Belarus' pro-democracy movement. She challenged President Alexander Lukashenko last year in that country's election. She says he cheated to win. A whole lot of the people agreed. There were massive street protests last summer and fall, protests that Lukashenko brutally crushed.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).
KELLY: Thousands were arrested, and Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee the country.
Good morning. I'm Mary Louise. Nice to meet you.
SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Nice to meet you.
KELLY: Her husband, Sergei, was the first in the family to run for president. Lukashenko arrested and imprisoned him, which Tsikhanouskaya struggles to explain to their two children.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: My daughter doesn't know what prison is. Maybe it's a place or country. But my oldest son knows everything. And it's very not simple to talk to him about this.
KELLY: This week, she's here in the U.S. And the people she's talking to are senior American officials. When I sat down with her this morning, she told me among the people she's meeting are Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Will you meet President Biden?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: It's not confirmed yet, but I would like to, of course.
KELLY: You would like to, as you've been meeting the heads of European governments.
KELLY: I know you were - sat down with President Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany and others. What is the message you have for them? What do they need to know about your country?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Our country, Belarus, was under dictatorship's regime for 27 years. And last year, Belarusian people aroused to fight for their rights. And last elections on 9 of August were fraudulent. People went out for huge demonstrations to show that we are ready to fight for our votes, for our voices. But this fight is met with huge violence from the side of this dictatorship regime.
KELLY: Huge violence.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Huge violence. And after elections especially, we had three days of hell in Belarus where more than 35,000 people have been detained and harshly tortured in jails. And we understand that we are ready to do our job to fight, to continue. But of course, with the help of democratic countries, this path will be easier and smoother.
KELLY: How? What do you want them to do?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Now, I say that only pressure on the one hand and support of civil society are the pillars that will help us to stop tortures in our country. So we ask the U.S.A. to join to all the European Union sanctions or to be the champion in imposing sanctions on the regime. And on the other hand, it's necessary to support civil society. So as so many people inside the country had to flee because of the repressions, we have a lot of political prisoners and their families who also need of support. At the moment, it's 561 political prisoners. So we need a lot of lawyers and need a lot of payment.
KELLY: So you're talking about financial support to help pay legal fees, help support free media...
KELLY: ...And then also punitive financial measures. Is that part of what you'll ask?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah, absolutely.
KELLY: You said you're meeting the secretary of state...
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah, we...
KELLY: ...And the national security adviser at the White House.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So as there are so many people inside the country that are responsible for the crimes, we have to look for justice at the moment outside of the country.
KELLY: Would you update us on your situation? You're still living in Vilnius...
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah, I'm still living in Vilnius...
KELLY: ...With your children...
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: ...With my children.
KELLY: ...Because it's not safe for you in Belarus.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I'm sure just at the moment I cross the border, I will be imprisoned. If Lukashenko's regime is ready to hijack plane to kidnap a journalist, so for sure, I'm under threat the same that all the people who are inside country and who are in exile also under threat. And we have to take measures to protect ourselves.
KELLY: Your husband, Sergei, are you able to see him? Are you able to speak to him?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Oh, no, absolutely. In our country, even those people with relatives who live inside the country, in Belarus, they don't have a possibility to meet prisoners. We can only communicate through the lawyers, just sent in simple messages. And, you know, of course, it's a PITA (ph). And my children really miss they daddy. And we are talking about him every evening. You know, and the regime uses these leverages to influence on people with the help of relatives, children, you know, so forth.
KELLY: When did you last speak to him?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Once, I had chance to talk to him on the phone when Lukashenko visited jail. And they, like, could allow him to call me. It was 10 minutes conversation. I was really happy to hear his voice. But, of course, it's not enough. My children are waiting him on the freedom.
KELLY: When was that?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: It was in October.
KELLY: I mean, it seems as though the situation in Belarus gets worse, not better. The crackdown on the opposition continues. I was reading just on Friday the homes and offices of journalists with U.S. government-funded radio - Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty - they were raided in Minsk, the capital. A court sentenced 11 university students and an instructor to prison. This is for allegedly violating public order during the big protests last year. The situation for pro-democratic forces in your country is not getting better.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: The situation for regime is not getting better as well because regime and Lukashenko himself are toxic for the world. He is not legitimate in the eyes of Belarusian people and other countries. He's cornered. And the fact that he's in prison and more and more people shows his weakness, not strengthness (ph). And the fact that people are still continuing to fight despite of all this violence, shows that people will not give up. And people who are beside the regime, they also understand that it's impossible to be beside him because he's destroying economy. And one day, they will have to choose to stay on the Titanic or to go further.
KELLY: It seems like you're fighting such a big fight though.
KELLY: Does it ever feel like you're pushing this really big rock up a hill and that the hill just keeps getting steeper?
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Sometimes it seems so, but I understand that I am, as well as the rest of the population of Belarus once this changes. But it has to be done drop by drop. You know, we lived under this dictatorship for 27 years. Nothing can happen just immediately. And it is difficult. But of course, when the democratic countries are united, it's much easier to fight with a last dictator in the world.
KELLY: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya - she is leader of Belarus' pro-democracy movement. Thank you.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Thank you so much for attention.
KELLY: After we finished, I asked Tsikhanouskaya whether there was anything else she wanted to say that we hadn't gotten to. She said she wanted to speak directly to Americans listening.
TSIKHANOUSKAYA: It's not only about policy. It's about real people as well. I mean, you can support our political prisoners by writing letters to them into prison. They are so glad. You know, it will take 10 minutes of your life, but it will make the whole day of those who are in jail. Of course, you should follow your diplomats, your governments, for them to stand with Belarusians.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELKHORN'S "TO SEE DARKNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.