The leader of the democratic forces of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, opened a conference in Tallinn on Friday. "We are much stronger than the regime, the only thing we don't have is our tools, and we don't want it to have this brutality," she said, referring to political detainees and human rights violations in Belarus today.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Margus Tsahkna, minister of foreign affairs of Estonia, opened a one-day international conference about Belarus on Friday (November 10).
"The countries of the free world will never give up on the independence of our culture, on the independence of our people, on the independence of our nation," Tsikhanouskaya said during the opening discussion.
The Belarusian revival and the nation's European course are not in conflict, she said. "While Belarus is now undergoing Russification, the European community will respect and value all Belarusians. That is why we are striving to become one of the nations that respects its own people. We have to realize that in Europe will we be able to be a sovereign, independent country and break free from Putin's Russia."
Katia Gold, a Russia-West policy fellow at the European Leadership Network and a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington said that Tsikhanouskaya has tasked herself with convincing the European Commission, Member States and the general European public – whose attention is now consumed by Ukraine and who find it already difficult to comprehend the enlargement to Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia – of Belarus' Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
"We know that public opinion in Europe is very divided, even about Ukraine or Norway and Georgia," Gold continued. "I am personally very happy because I am convinced Belarus' place should be within the European Union, but what you are telling the European Commission, EU member states? How do you influence public opinion in Europe?" she asked.
"And what are you actually telling people in Belarus? How do you make them see that this way is the right one, and that even after 2020 this path is still open to Belarus, i.e., even taking into account that Belarus is now so closely aligned with Russia?" Gold asked.
"It is not my goal to persuade Belarusians because our people understand why our place is in Europe," Tsikhanouskaya responded.
"Especially after the beginning of the war, the Belarusian people felt that we were absolutely not like Russians. These implicit ambitions are not there among the general public in Belarus. We strongly oppose any form of war with our neighboring countries.
"We, the Belarusian people, fully respect international laws and the values we all share. Belarusians also understand that prosperity – economic prosperity – will grow in the country only when we become part of the global economy, the European economy," she went on.
"Our society for the most part agrees about the future, but people can't convey this desire openly now, because if you are for Europe, if you are for free Belarus, if you are for democracy, you are enemy of this regime. But if you ask 'Where do you want your children to be educated?' the answer is 'in European universities,' or 'Where is life better?' the answer is 'in Europe,' so people choose Europe even if they don't say so explicitly," she said.
"People in Belarus have lived under the paradigm that we are part of Russia, an appendix satellite of Russia – our bigger brother or sister. It takes time to understand and become critical of what they have been told for over 30 years. But now that everything is becoming so evident in the world, the younger generation is making this decision faster," she said. "Maybe they will have to convince their parents many of whom have no idea how they would have lived if we hadn't chosen the wrong person in the 1990s."
"And I should not be convincing Europeans that our future is in the European Union, because we historically belong in Europe," she went on to say. "And honestly, we should not be asking if we deserve to be part of the European Union, because if Belarusian people feel that we have to become part of a democratic society, we are already part of it.
"Of course, we need to reach some economic standards, undergo reforms, work on the Constitution, and we have already started on this path. As a politician and diplomat, I have never heard negative discussions or opinions about our future; it is in Europe," Tsikhanouskaya said.
"I cannot say with certainty what awaits us in the coming year; for example, we didn't expect people needing to renew their passports to be deprived of them instead, or that about 20 people will be detained in Belarus daily. Three years have passed, but detentions continue and people in jails are kept in incommunicado mode," she said.
"There are many obstacles ahead of us, but I know for certain that whatever challenges we face in 2024, all of us here today, millions in Belarus and hundreds of thousands in exile will continue to work to solve them daily. Our power is this unity. All of us know that we are on a very difficult path to democracy, but it is the only right one," Tsikhanouskaya said.
"We are much stronger than the regime, the only thing we don't have is our tools, and we don't want it to have this brutality," she said.
The Belarus Conference was organized by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with the Estonian Institute of Human Rights, the European Endowment for Democracy and the leader of the Democratic Forces of Belarus.
Editor: Kristina Kersa