Exiled opposition leader calls on Belarus to break with Russia

WASHINGTON: Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged her country to break ties with neighbor Russia as she spoke out on Wednesday (Mar 22) against President Alexander Lukashenko’s support for the war in Ukraine.

Lukashenko, who has been in power in Minsk for almost 30 years, is a key ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and allowed the Kremlin to launch its intervention in Ukraine from his country’s territory.

“It is time to push back against Russia’s interference into the internal affairs of Belarus. It supports the illegitimate regime and conducts colonialist actions against our serenity and national identity,” Tikhanovskaya told a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington.

“The aggressor military freely uses our territory, airspace and infrastructure to attack and threaten Ukraine. The Russian military should be fully withdrawn from Belarus and our country must stop participation in the war.”

She called for Belarusians to break off “close relations with the aggressor” and vowed the country would eventually leave the 1999 “union state” treaty envisioning deeper integration between Minsk and Moscow, and end their military alliance.

Earlier this month, Belarus sentenced Tikhanovskaya in absentia to 15 years for spearheading protests against the former Soviet country’s leader, who claimed he had won a sixth presidential term in disputed 2020 elections.

Since being forced to flee to neighboring EU member Lithuania, Tikhanovskaya has urged greater Western pressure on Lukashenko, whose government was sanctioned by the West in the wake of the election.

Almost 1,500 Belarusians are arbitrarily detained on “politically motivated charges,” according to the United Nations, while more than 2,000 have been convicted under so-called extremism charges, including “insulting the president.”

“Lukashenko… does everything Putin wants and, against the will of the people, he enabled the war against Ukraine and must bear the full responsibility for this,” Tikhanovskaya said.

The event was arranged by US senators Roger Wicker and Jeanne Shaheen, a Mississippi Republican and Democrat from New Hampshire respectively who founded the Free Belarus Caucus in 2021.

“Lukashenko has allowed Belarus’s sovereign territory to be used to further Putin’s expansionist agenda, facilitate (Russia’s) unprovoked attacks on Ukraine,” Shaheen said.

“And it’s important to remember that there are brave Belarusians, independent journalists, human rights defenders and other members of civil society, who are bravely fighting in exile to expose Lukashenko’s criminal complicity in Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

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