“I am just the same, unselfconfident person I was,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya told Sky News in August last year. “But this is my mission. I have to overcome all these difficulties and bring our country to a free future and become a mother and wife again.”
That was shortly before a blatantly rigged election robbed her of what would most likely have been, had the votes been counted right, a resounding victory against Belarus’s long time autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
A day later she would appear in an emotional recorded clearly under duress where she said she had over-estimated her strength, that she was “still the same weak woman that I was” and would be leaving Belarus.
“I was threatened with my children,” she tells Dermot Murnaghan in the Sky News Daily podcast. “They told me ‘we will jail you all, and your children will be abandoned, they will be put in an orphanage’.”
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“They know where to push.”
With her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky at the mercy of Lukashenko’s prison guards and her children already in Europe, she had little choice. But Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has never shown the slightest weakness either as a mother, a wife or as a leader.
“They underestimated me, the Belarusian people and the will of the Belarusians for a better future,” she told Sky News last week.
As a wife, she has campaigned tirelessly for her husband’s freedom, running on his behalf as president when Mr Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger, was barred from the race and jailed.
As a leader, she has grown in stature every step of the way – along the campaign trail and now in exile as she tours Western capitals, making sure Lukashenko’s brutalities are known and condemned while calling for tough western sanctions against him and his regime.
She wants the international community and the media to refer to him as Belarus’s ex-president, a leader de facto but not de jure.
Sergei Tikhanovsky was barred from the presidential race and jailed
She calls him a threat to the security of Europe as he floods its borders with migrants lured into Belarus through tourist visas and the promise of easy EU entry.
She hopes that continued western sanctions will force this ‘ex-president’ to begin negotiations with the Belarusian people.
She is confident that the spirit of resistance is strong, both within the Belarusian community in exile and in Belarus itself.
“We are trying to build on the ground organisations to resist more centrally. The regime knows that people didn’t give up.”
Inside Belarus though, it’s hard to gauge that resistance. It is underground at best. Those who have stood up to the regime are jailed.
Tens of thousands have fled. Belarusians who oppose Lukashenko in their sitting rooms are cowed into submission, knowing the domestic intelligence service, still known by its Soviet name, the KGB, have feelers everywhere.
Sky correspondent challenges Lukashenko
Now you can be jailed for the telegram channels you subscribe to. Human rights groups say they believe around 100 people were arrested in early October for social media comments condemning a shootout during a KGB raid on an IT specialist’s home, in which one KGB officer and the IT specialist were killed.
Those arrested for their comments in the ensuing social media storm could face up to twelve years behind bars for supposedly ‘inciting social enmity’.
Life in the capital Minsk is as normal as it can be given the circumstances. It is quieter perhaps, a little less full. Many of the bars and restaurants we journalists frequented around last year’s election and the subsequent protests are boarded up, their owners presumably starting afresh in Lithuania, Ukraine or Poland.
September: Belarus opposition leader jailed
But others have sprung up, trendy eateries with glamorous clientele, people trying to carry on with their lives. Plus of course, there are the regime stalwarts, all those who participate in the heavy-handed apparatus of the state, who subjugate justice to their ends and who keep Lukashenko in power.
To all intents and purposes, despite what Mrs Tikhanovskaya says, the regime has won.
Her husband’s trial is a closed process in what passes for a courtroom in a prison in the city of Gomel. It started in June and there has been no verdict yet.
He is unlikely to be shown much mercy. Viktor Babariko, who like Mr Tikhanovsky ran for president, was jailed in June for 14 years on spurious embezzlement charges.
Belarusian opposition politician Maria Kolesnikova has just started an eleven-year jail term
Maria Kolesnikova, who campaigned in his place alongside Mrs Tikhanovskaya, has just started an eleven-year term alongside her lawyer Maxim Znak.
“We don’t have the moral right to stop,” Mrs Tikhanovskaya says. “You are not thinking even about stopping because those people who are in jail, they sacrificed with freedom, some with their lives to give us the opportunity to fight further and to prove that what they were fighting for is extremely important for us as well.”
Thursday 27 November is the day of solidarity with political prisoners across former Soviet countries. Spare a thought for the 818 recognised as political prisoners in Belarus, and for the thousands more who are not recognised as such for various reasons.