Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s speech at the conference “Working for Peace to Overcome the Scourge of War” in Tallinn

“Dear minister Liimets, dear Mr. Mikhelson,

Distinguished speakers, 

Today our hearts are with Ukraine. The fates of Belarusian and Ukrainian people are strongly interconnected. We, in Belarus, understand that there will not be free Belarus without free Ukraine, and vice versa.

This month we mark 20 months since the beginning of our uprising for freedom. Many of you remember the beautiful demonstrations with hundreds of thousands of Belarusians protesting for their freedom and dignity. These protests were followed by brutal terror which has not stopped even for a day. After reaching 50,000 detainees, human rights defenders lost count. A dozen people sacrificed their lives in our peaceful struggle against dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands had to flee, but nevertheless continued their work for Belarus from exile. 

I often hear now: where are Belarusians? Why don't they protest against the war in Ukraine? Unfortunately, in 2020 and 2021, the regime in Belarus, enabled by the Kremlin, has suppressed all prominent alternative voices. Almost all NGOs in Belarus were forced to shut down, major independent media were designated as extremist and repressed. Even subscription to these media was criminalized. 

Unfortunately, despite all the efforts of the international community and Belarusians themselves, we did not manage to stop Lukashenka. In December 2021, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian tanks entered Belarus on the pretext of military drills. It went unnoticed for many until these tanks crossed the Ukrainian border and advanced in the direction of Chernobyl and Kyiv. 

I can’t say that had democratic Belarus prevailed in 2020, then war wouldn't have happened. But it’s evident that without Lukashenka Putin would not have had such a military advantage. At this very moment, southern Belarus is under de-facto military occupation. It is used to launch missiles and aircraft to bomb peaceful Ukrainian cities day and night. Belarusians were definitely not prepared for this. The fear of repressions was complemented by fear of war.

It’s hard to imagine street protests now: the repressions are too high. Repressed protests lead to massive arrests, new political prisoners, and emigration. 

The democratic movement has transformed into an Anti-War Movement which grows by the day. Hackers and partisans are sabotaging railways. Activists collect information on the movements of Russian troops that help to alert the Ukrainian side. There is a developed network of samizdat – underground newspapers –  explaining the truth about the war. Media have an enormous effect on public opinion, and it’s our priority right now to develop alternative channels of communication. 

In contrast to Russia, there is no public support for the war among Belarusians. You won’t see stadiums of people wearing Z or V signs. Just 3% of Belarusians support our military involvement in the war on Russia’s side, according to Chatham House.

Therefore it’s crucial to understand and explain the difference between the regime and Belarus people: we should avoid situations when those who fight the regime and help Ukraine become isolated or discriminated against because of their passport.

Now let me get back to the topic of this conference. As I argued every time Estonia has hosted an Arria Formula meeting, the Belarus case needed to be discussed at the UN Security Council in 2020. Maybe, then we would have been able to prevent many of the developments that followed, including the Ryanair hijacking and the orchestrated migration crisis.

I was a bit naive back then: I thought that the international community had enough tools that might stop dictators like Lukashenka but it usually ended up producing another statement of condemnation. 

There were exceptions however. Estonia has demonstrated that even small countries can make a difference using international mechanisms timely and wisely. We have seen Estonia initiating three Arria-formula hearings on Belarus during its membership in the UN Security Council:

  • On the brutal crackdown of the protests after the fraudulent elections;
  • On the repression of the Media;
  • On human rights abuses.

I wish to express my gratitude to Foreign Affairs Minister Eva Maria Liimets and to the former Foreign Affairs Minister Urmas Reinsalu. Each of the hearings had a significant impact both on the Belarusian society and on the international agenda. 

First, the hearings sent signals to the Belarusian regime that their wrongs are recorded, and the perpetrators will be brought to justice. So potentially they restrained the regime from larger-scale atrocities. 

On the other hand, such hearings turned the international spotlight back on the Belarusian unresolved crisis. It gave us an opportunity to hear the position of China, India, Mexico and other countries that had not previously spoken publicly about Belarus. That information turned out to be valuable for us.

Belarus is not a member of the International Criminal Court, nor of the Council of Europe, nor of the EU, which means many international mechanisms are simply not available to us. Arria Formula meetings gave floor to those whose voice would be missed at regular meetings. At the meeting on Freedom of Media, for example, the whole world heard from the Belarus and international journalists about their detentions, tortures, beatings just for doing their work. This is already recorded as important evidence of the regime's crimes. And I hope Albania along with other allies will take the lead in organizing such meetings.

It’s very likely that the regime in Minsk, regime of Lukashenka, will try to avoid responsibility for war crimes in Ukraine. We already hear voices presenting him as a victim. He is not. He is the Kremlin's accomplice and must bear full responsibility for atrocities in Ukraine. Meanwhile, I’d like to ask you to distinguish his regime and Belarusian people fearlessly fighting against the authorities and occupying Russian forces. 

Thank you for your attention!”

1 April 2022 в 12:40