The decline of Lukashenko: Belarus’s opposition leader breaks down health rumors, Putin’s propaganda and the future

Yahoo News spoke with former presidential candidate and political activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya about Europe’s “last dictator” and his reported ill health.

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TIPPERARY, Ireland — Europe has been rife with rumors of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s ill health. Speculation began after the 68-year-old autocrat was reportedly rushed to a hospital last week, after attending a Victory Day parade in Moscow.

Lukashenko’s health is significant, since he is one of the only allies Vladimir Putin has left in Eastern Europe since the Russian president launched his brutal invasion of Ukraine last year. Putin used Belarusian territory as a staging point for a failed attack on Kyiv, and Ukraine’s allies worry that Lukashenko could officially join the war.

In a bid to tamp down speculation about Lukashenko’s poor health, Belarusian state TV published footage on Monday showing him visiting an army command center. His hoarse voice and heavily bandaged arm, however, further fueled the rumors.

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Lukashenko is sometimes called Europe’s “last dictator,” and he has ruthlessly suppressed his political opposition since becoming his country’s first and only president in 1994. As questions arise about what is next for Belarus, Yahoo News spoke with its exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, about what the future looks like for her country. (Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Tsikhanouskaya was awarded the Tipperary International Peace Award on May 2 for her work in bringing democracy to Belarus after the imprisonment of her husband, Sergei. In 2020, he was arrested by the Belarusian secret police and was sentenced in 2021 to 18 years in prison for organizing mass unrest.

President Alexander Lukashenko, wearing a small pin of the Belarus flag on his lapel.
President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus speaks to foreign media at his residence, the Independence Palace, in the capital, Minsk, on Feb. 16. (Natalia Kolesnikova /AFP via Getty Images)

Is there any truth to the rumors of Lukashenko’s ill health?

There are many rumors about Lukashenko’s health. He just disappeared from public space, and even “the propaganda” doesn't know how to comment. Lukashenko, like every dictator, likes to control everything and to make the impression that he is invincible or almost immortal, and now, suddenly — silence. These rumors have sparked discussions in society: What if he dies? We feel that many people around him are also waiting for the moment of change.

What is a realistic route to democracy for Belarus? Is it something you could see happening in the next five years?

I actually don't think about the timeframe for this. It's difficult when you have lived under a dictatorship for almost 30 years to become immediately democratic. We have wonderful, hardworking people who really can change our country. We see how our neighbors live and we want to live in the same way. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all countries were at the same initial point of development. But now we see that Belarus is stuck in time like it’s frozen, and this is because of poor management of our country. For example, Poland developed correctly.

In March, a court in Belarus sentenced you in absentia to 15 years in prison. Along with the jail term, you were banned from running for election again. Will this stop you?

There cannot be free and fair elections while Lukashenko is in power. That's why no so-called parliamentary elections or present presidential elections can be considered legitimate. This next election, I'm not going to run, because there are wonderful political leaders who are in prison at the moment who can take responsibility for the future, but I'm going to stay with people as much as people need me. Back in 2020, I promised the voters and the people that my role would be only a transitional one. My task together with others is to bring our country free and fair elections which can happen without Lukashenko.

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Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at the microphone.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Democratic Forces of Belarus, addresses a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on March 28. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

What does it feel like to be in opposition to two very powerful leaders?

My life didn't prepare me for this position to be in opposition to dictators. But I made my choice in 2020, when I, instead of my husband, decided to become a presidential candidate. Of course, it's scary, because they are — especially Putin —powerful dictators. But I feel that the Belarusian people are with me and that I have support from powerful democratic countries. I'm full of assurance that our fight will win, that we will return Belarus to democratic ways, and that we will be a reliable partner for European countries.

Do you think, with the power you have as opposition leader, your life is ever at risk?

I don't have time to think about this. I'm under protection, and everything is taken care of by my security. But I understand how long the regime's hands are. We all remember the hijacking of a Ryanair flight when Roman Protasevich was detained. [The Belarusian journalist and activist, who had been living in exile, is now serving an eight-year sentence in Belarus.] We know what methods the regime is using to threaten people. But I can’t just care about my own personal security; all the people who are in Belarus and those who fled because of repression are also in huge danger. So we have to mobilize people to fight for them. Freedom needs sacrifice, and now people are sacrificing their normal lives and their freedom to bring our country the changes we all want.

President Vladimir Putin sitting in a gilded chair with a Russian flag behind him, looking glum.
President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting via video link at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 17. (Mikhail Klimentyev /Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

How do you tackle the constant wave of propaganda by both Belarus and Russia?

The media plays a role in promoting our message, which, of course, goes against Russian propaganda. We have to counter this with the means we have. We don't have access to state TV or state newspapers, and the alternative media in Belarus has been ruined. People who are subscribed to media outlets, who, I don't know, comment or put likes on Instagram or TikTok — they can be detained and have their phone searched, and you know police see that they're subscribed to this. They can be detained for years.

God bless the internet, we have the possibility to spread honest news about the situation in Belarus about the war in Ukraine, through YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. People in Belarus know how to use VPNs, they delete the history of their searches, because it's really dangerous.

Our task is to reach not only those who are politically active but also those who are just living their lives. That's why we have a network of volunteers inside the country who make self-made leaflets and newspapers and spread them in small villages to the older generation of people who don't know how to use the internet. It's also a huge danger for those people, because they could get years and years in prison.

Do you see yourself being able to return home?

The task of the Belarusian people is to keep Lukashenko’s regime under constant stress, because there will be more opportunities to get rid of the regime. They will have to be prepared to not just sit and wait until Ukraine wins the war and Lukashenko becomes weak. Our task is also to contribute constant pressure on the regime. And yes, I will be able to return home. It's just a question of time.

Cover thumbnail photo: (Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; Photos: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images, Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)