Belarus: 18 Years For Tikhanovsky, Grim Prospects For Democracy
The jail sentence against the opposition leader is a clear sign that strongman Lukashenko is not looking back.
Headlines in the West about this week’s sentencing of Sergei Tikhanovsky identified him as “husband of opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.” While it is of course true, the description is also wholly insufficient.
Indeed it is worth remembering who Tikhanovsky was — and is — now that a Belarusian court has sentenced him to 18 years of hard time in a prison colony.
Tikhanovsky was a popular blogger who’d gained a national following criticizing the government and sharing stories of the struggles of ordinary Belarusians, and had dared to announce his candidacy in the spring of 2020 to challenge longtime strongman ruler Alexander Lukashenko in presidential elections.
Soon after, the then 41-year-old was detained by authorities, and forced to hand over the mantle of the movement’s leadership to Tikhanovskaya. Briefly released from detention, Tikhanovsky became the head of his wife's campaign, before being arrested again on May 29 at a campaign rally in Hrodna.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at an event in Berlin
Challenge to democratic societies
Tikhanovskaya continued to build her support, and after Lukashenko’s lopsided victory in a clearly rigged election, led demands for a new vote. But a government crackdown soon ensued, and Tikhanovskaya was eventually forced to leave Belarus — with her husband still in custody.
Fast-forward to Tuesday, with Lukashenko still firmly in control of the country, the guilty verdict against Tikhanovsky on charges of organizing riots and leading social unrest were both shocking and not surprising at all. Tikhanovsky’s associates, Artem Sakov and Dmitry Popov, received 16 years of hard time. Bloggers Vladimir Tsyganovich and Igor Losik were sentenced to 15 years in the reinforced regime colony, while politician Nikolai Statkevich got 14 years in jail.
Lukashenko is sure that he will rule forever
To be clear, Amnesty International considers Tikhanovsky a prisoner of conscience, and much of the international community has condemned the sentence. From exile in Lithuania, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya responded to her husband’s sentencing on Twitter: "The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents. While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won't stop."
Such trials and sentences are a clear public demonstration of Lukashenko's intentions, as well as the solidity of the Russian leadership covering his back. It is a challenge to democratic societies around the world saying: our justice system is not subject to your views on human rights.
To enter the state of mind of a strongman like Lukashenko, you must remember that he is sure that he will rule forever — every totalitarian leader is sure of his irremovability. This both permits and requires that he demonstrates brutality toward his opponents. It is the basis, explicit or otherwise, of his pact with Vladimir Putin, and a message to those abroad and at home who might challenge them.
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