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Even in exile, Belarus' Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fights authoritarianism

By Valleri Robinson
Even in exile, Belarus' Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fights authoritarianism
Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (C) speaks with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (L), D-Ill., Sen. Jeanne Shaheen D-N.H., and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R), R-Ark., at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on July 20. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 11 (UPI) -- If the elections hadn't been rigged, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya would have become president of Belarus in August 2020. Perhaps she would have won the Nobel Peace Prize.

When her husband, Siarhei CichanoŇ≠ski, a popular blogger and prospective presidential candidate, and other leading opposition candidates were imprisoned or forced to flee, the inexperienced 37-year-old former English teacher took up the charge to oppose the authoritarian regime.

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She united the opposition by running for president on two key promises: If she won, she would free all political prisoners, and she would hold free and fair elections. Supporters saw her as truly running for the people, and seeing tens of thousands turn out for her rallies, she knew she couldn't back down. She hasn't yet.

Tsikhanouskaya was considered a strong contender for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, along with imprisoned Russian anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. This year's deserving winners, journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia, received the prize "for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace."

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Democracy, as we know, is under threat globally. It seems voting rights, freedom of the press, civil liberties and election integrity are under pressure everywhere. Unlike the 2020 U.S. presidential election, which has repeatedly been legally determined to be free and fair, the election in Belarus in August 2020 that kept the dictator Alexander Lukashenko in power has not been recognized as legitimate by the European Union, the United Kingdom or the United States.

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When the results were announced at 80% for Lukashenko and 10% for Tsikhanouskaya, the people knew they were being gaslighted and erupted in the largest known peaceful protests in Belarus. Lukashenko responded with a vicious and violent crackdown. Tsikhanouskaya was basically kidnapped and forced into exile, and the dictator hurriedly inaugurated himself.

In exile, Tsikhanouskaya's popularity has surged globally, but she has resisted becoming a populist. She uses the spotlight to highlight the everyday courage of Belarusians, human rights abuses and the growing global threat of rising authoritarianism.

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I came to know about Tsikhanouskaya through a play. The celebrated Belarusian screenwriter and playwright Andrei Kureichik, himself forced into exile, wrote an extraordinary documentary play about these events in Belarus, featuring Tsikhanouskaya as a central character.

Within months of the election, Kureichik's play was performed over 120 times around the globe, drawing attention to the struggles in Belarus while amplifying concerns over diminishing democracy from Nigeria to Los Angeles to Hong Kong.

I produced a digital reading of the play and attended dozens of virtual readings around the world from September 2020 through April. I watched "Sviatlana" speak in English, Mandarin, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian and several other languages. In our own reading at the University of Illinois, Nisi Sturgis, an actress known for playing roles of women with surprising fierceness and quiet, underestimated power, played Tsikhanouskaya.

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The play captures in the character a woman who, stumbling into the role of leader, learns to assert herself. Kureichik wrote the play before the real Tsikhanouskaya secured her spot on the world stage. Her courage to speak up when she was told many times to be silent has resonated deeply with women across the globe.

In one year, she has moved from a hesitant galvanizer of the people to a distinguished diplomat and force for global democracy. Awestruck, I've witnessed many of her interviews and her two virtual hearings on Belarus before the U.S. Congress earlier this year.

I've seen her transform into a powerful, influential, authentic stateswoman who has met with heads of state and foreign ministers across Europe, the United States and Canada. For me, she has a combination of the grit and pragmatism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom she has met, and the grace and humility of Princess Diana, whom she admires.

She was unexpectedly cast in her role, but she has been playing it brilliantly. Even if she had won the prize, drawing renewed global attention to the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, she would continue her public fight for political prisoners and free and fair elections until they win.

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For Tsikhanouskaya, sadly, this show will go on.

Valleri Robinson is a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project and an associate professor of theater at the University of Illinois.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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