If the 20th century was the story of slow, uneven progress toward the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies—communism, fascism, virulent nationalism—the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.
The future of democracy may well be decided in a drab office building on the outskirts of Vilnius, alongside a highway crammed with impatient drivers heading out of town.
I met Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya there this spring, in a room that held a conference table, a whiteboard, and not much else. Her team—more than a dozen young journalists, bloggers, vloggers, and activists—was in the process of changing offices. But that wasn’t the only reason the space felt stale and perfunctory. None of them, especially not Tsikhanouskaya, really wanted to be in this ugly building, or in the Lithuanian capital at all. She is there because she probably won the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, and because the Belarusian dictator she probably defeated, Alexander Lukashenko, forced her out of the country immediately afterward. Lithuania offered her asylum. Her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, remains imprisoned in Belarus.
From our December 2021 issue
Here is the first thing she said to me: “My story is a little bit different from other people.” This is what she tells everyone—that hers was not the typical life of a dissident or budding politician. Before the spring of 2020, she didn’t have much time for television or newspapers. She has two children, one of whom was born deaf. On an ordinary day, she would take them to kindergarten, to the doctor, to the park.
Then her husband bought a house and ran into the concrete wall of Belarusian bureaucracy and corruption. Exasperated, he started making videos about his experiences, and those of others. These videos yielded a YouTube channel; the channel attracted thousands of followers. He went around the country, recording the frustrations of his fellow citizens, driving a car with the phrase “Real News”plastered on the side. Siarhei Tsikhanouski held up a mirror to his society. People saw themselves in that mirror and responded with the kind of enthusiasm that opposition politicians had found hard to create in Belarus.
“At the beginning it was really difficult because people were afraid,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told me. “But step-by-step, slowly, they realized that Siarhei isn’t afraid.” He wasn’t afraid to speak the truth as he saw it; his absence of fear inspired others. He decided to run for president. The regime, recognizing the power of Siarhei’s mirror, would not allow him to register his candidacy, just as it had not allowed him to register the ownership of his house. It ended his campaign and arrested him.
Tsikhanouskaya ran in his place, with no motive other than “to show my love for him.” The police and bureaucrats let her. Because what harm could she do, this simple housewife, this woman with no political experience? And so, in July 2020, she registered as a candidate. Unlike her husband, she was afraid. She woke up “so scared” every morning, she told me, and sometimes she stayed scared all day long. But she kept going. Which was, though she doesn’t say so, incredibly brave. “You feel this responsibility, you wake up with this pain for those people who are in jail, you go to bed with the same feeling.”
Unexpectedly, Tsikhanouskaya was a success—not despite her inexperience, but because of it. Her campaign became a campaign about ordinary people standing up to the regime. Two other prominent opposition politicians endorsed her after their own campaigns were blocked, and when the wife of one of them and the female campaign manager of the other were photographed alongside Tsikhanouskaya, her campaign became something more: a campaign about ordinary women—women who had been neglected, women who had no voice, even just women who loved their husbands. In return, the regime targeted all three of these women. Tsikhanouskaya received an anonymous threat: Her children would be “sent to an orphanage.” She dispatched them with her mother abroad, to Vilnius, and kept campaigning.Democratic revolutions are contagious. If you can stamp them out in one country, you might prevent them from starting in others.
On August 9, election officials announced that Lukashenko had won 80 percent of the vote, a number nobody believed. The internet was cut off, and Tsikhanouskaya was detained by police and then forced out of the country. Mass demonstrations unfolded across Belarus. These were both a spontaneous outburst of feeling—a popular response to the stolen election—and a carefully coordinated project run by young people, some based in Warsaw, who had been experimenting with social media and new forms of communication for several years. For a brief, tantalizing moment, it looked like this democratic uprising might prevail. Belarusians shared a sense of national unity they had never felt before. The regime immediately pushed back, with real brutality. Yet the mood at the protests was generally happy, optimistic; people literally danced in the streets. In a country of fewer than 10 million, up to 1.5 million people would come out in a single day, among them pensioners, villagers, factory workers, and even, in a few places, members of the police and the security services, some of whom removed insignia from their uniforms or threw them in the garbage.
Tsikhanouskaya says she and many others naively believed that under this pressure, the dictator would just give up. “We thought he would understand that we are against him,” she told me. “That people don’t want to live under his dictatorship, that he lost the elections.” They had no other plan.
At first, Lukashenko seemed to have no plan either. But his neighbors did. On August 18, a plane belonging to the FSB, the Russian security services, flew from Moscow to Minsk. Soon after that, Lukashenko’s tactics underwent a dramatic change. Stephen Biegun, who was the U.S. deputy secretary of state at the time, describes the change as a shift to “more sophisticated, more controlled ways to repress the population.” Belarus became a textbook example of what the journalist William J. Dobson has called “the dictator’s learning curve”: Techniques that had been used successfully in the past to repress crowds in Russia were seamlessly transferred to Belarus, along with personnel who understood how to deploy them. Russian television journalists arrived to replace the Belarusian journalists who had gone on strike, and immediately stepped up the campaign to portray the demonstrations as the work of Americans and other foreign “enemies.” Russian police appear to have supplemented their Belarusian colleagues, or at least given them advice, and a policy of selective arrests began. As Vladimir Putin figured out a long time ago, mass arrests are unnecessary if you can jail, torture, or possibly murder just a few key people. The rest will be frightened into staying home. Eventually they will become apathetic, because they believe nothing can change.
The Lukashenko rescue package, reminiscent of the one Putin had designed for Bashar al-Assad in Syria six years earlier, contained economic elements too. Russian companies offered markets for Belarusian products that had been banned by the democratic West—for example, smuggling Belarusian cigarettes into the European Union. Some of this was possible because the two countries share a language. (Though roughly a third to half of the country speaks Belarusian, most public business in Belarus is conducted in Russian.) But this close cooperation was also possible because Lukashenko and Putin, though they famously dislike each other, share a common way of seeing the world. Both believe that their personal survival is more important than the well-being of their people. Both believe that a change of regime would result in their death, imprisonment, or exile.
Both also learned lessons from the Arab Spring, as well as from the more distant memory of 1989, when Communist dictatorships fell like dominoes: Democratic revolutions are contagious. If you can stamp them out in one country, you might prevent them from starting in others. The anti-corruption, prodemocracy demonstrations of 2014 in Ukraine, which resulted in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government, reinforced this fear of democratic contagion. Putin was enraged by those protests, not least because of the precedent they set. After all, if Ukrainians could get rid of their corrupt dictator, why wouldn’t Russians want to do the same?
Lukashenko gladly accepted Russian help, turned against his people, and transformed himself from an autocratic, patriarchal grandfather—a kind of national collective-farm boss—into a tyrant who revels in cruelty. Reassured by Putin’s support, he began breaking new ground. Not just selective arrests—a year later, human-rights activists say that more than 800 political prisoners remain in jail—but torture. Not just torture but rape. Not just torture and rape but kidnapping and, quite possibly, murder.
Lukashenko’s sneering defiance of the rule of law—he issues stony-faced denialsof the existence of political repression in his country—and of anything resembling decency spread beyond his borders. In May 2021, Belarusian air traffic control forced an Irish-owned Ryanair passenger plane to land in Minsk so that one of the passengers, Roman Protasevich, a young dissident living in exile, could be arrested; he later made public confessions on television that appeared to be coerced. In August, another young dissident living in exile, Vitaly Shishov, was found hanged in a Kyiv park. At about the same time, Lukashenko’s regime set out to destabilize its EU neighbors by forcing streams of refugees across their borders: Belarus lured Afghan and Iraqi refugees to Minsk with a proffer of tourist visas, then escorted them to the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland and forced them at gunpoint to cross, illegally.
Lukashenko began to act, in other words, as if he were untouchable, both at home and abroad. He began breaking not only the laws and customs of his own country, but also the laws and customs of other countries, and of the international community—laws regarding air traffic control, homicide, borders. Exiles flowed out of the country; Tsikhanouskaya’s team scrambled to book hotel rooms or Airbnbs in Vilnius, to find means of support, to learn new languages. Tsikhanouskaya herself had to make another, even more difficult transition—from people’s-choice candidate to sophisticated diplomat. This time her inexperience initially worked against her. At first, she thought that if she could just speak with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron, one of them could fix the problem. “I was sure they are so powerful that they can call Lukashenko and say, ‘Stop! How dare you?’ ” she told me. But they could not.
So she tried to talk as foreign leaders did, to speak in sophisticated political language. That didn’t work either. The experience was demoralizing: “It’s very difficult sometimes to talk about your people, about their sufferings, and see the emptiness in the eyes of those you are talking to.” She began using the plain English that she had learned in school, in order to convey plain things. “I started to tell stories that would touch their hearts. I tried to make them feel just a little of the pain that Belarusians feel.” Now she tells anyone who will listen exactly what she told me: I am an ordinary person, a housewife, a mother of two children, and I am in politics because other ordinary people are being beaten naked in prison cells. What she wants is sanctions, democratic unity, pressure on the regime—anything that will raise the cost for Lukashenko to stay in power, for Russia to keep him in power. Anything that might induce the business and security elites in Belarus to abandon him. Anything that might persuade China and Iran to keep out.
To her surprise, Tsikhanouskaya became, for the second time, a runaway success. She charmed Merkel and Macron, and the diplomats of multiple countries. In July, she met President Joe Biden, who subsequently broadened American sanctions on Belarus to include major companies in several industries (tobacco, potash, construction) and their executives. The EU had already banned a range of people, companies, and technologies from Belarus; after the Ryanair kidnapping, the EU and the U.K. banned the Belarusian national airline as well. What was once a booming trade between Belarus and Europe has been reduced to a trickle. Tsikhanouskaya inspires people to make sacrifices of their own. The Lithuanian foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, told me that his country was proud to host her, even if it meant trouble on the border. “If we’re not free to invite other free people into our country because it’s somehow not safe, then the question is, can we consider ourselves free?”
Tsikhanouskaya has acquired many other supporters and admirers. She has not only the talented young activists in Vilnius, but colleagues in Poland and Ukraine as well. She promotes values that unite millions of her compatriots, including pensioners like Nina Bahinskaya, a great-grandmother who has been filmed shouting at the police, and ordinary working people like Siarhei Hardziyevich, a 50-year-old journalist from a provincial town, Drahichyn, who was convicted of “insulting the president.” On her side she also has the friends and relatives of the hundreds of political prisoners who, like her own husband, are paying a high price just because they want to live in a country with free elections.
Most of all, though, Tsikhanouskaya has on her side the combined narrative power of what we used to call the free world. She has the language of human rights, democracy, and justice. She has the NGOs and human-rights organizations that work inside the United Nations and other international institutions to put pressure on autocratic regimes. She has the support of people around the world who still fervently believe that politics can be made more civilized, more rational, more humane, who can see in her an authentic representative of that cause.
But will that be enough? A lot depends on the answer.
All Rights Reserved for Anne Applebaum