'Keep on fighting', veteran female leader tells young Belarusians

(Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Belarusian exile Ivonka Survilla has spent her whole life waiting for a moment like this one.

As she watches the mass protests in her homeland from thousands of miles away in Canada, the first woman to head Belarus’s main emigre body has felt both joy and anger.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Belarus to demand the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for more than a quarter-century, after a disputed Aug. 9 presidential election.

Many of them are young men and women who are protesting for the first time, inspired by former teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 37, who only ran after her blogger husband was jailed, but emerged as the main opposition figure.

When Lukashenko claimed to have won 80 percent of the Aug. 9 vote, Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters refused to recognise the result and demanded a recount.

She has since gone into exile in neighbouring Lithuania, from where she has tried to orchestrate opposition to Lukashenko.

“It’s happiness to see that the people of Belarus at last have forgotten about the fear they had of the regime and have come to the streets,” said Survilla, a staunch opponent of the president.

“I’m so happy that so many women have come out,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Ottawa, where she lives, urging protesters to “keep on fighting” to oust Lukashenko from power.

Survilla, 84, fled Belarus with her parents as a child after it was annexed by the Soviet Union and has spent her life campaigning abroad for an end to Russian influence in the east European country of 9.5 million people.

In 1997 she was elected head of the Council of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, which describes itself as a government-in-exile. It has been going for more than a century and is funded largely by the diaspora.

The Council, or Rada, has no powers, but Survilla has used her position to lobby E.U. and other leaders, seeking to keep her country’s plight in the global spotlight.

She has campaigned for free and fair elections in Belarus, ruled for 26 years by Lukashenko, who has jailed rivals and arrested dissenters. The United States has called him Europe’s last dictator.

Over the past two weeks, police have detained about 7,000 people. At least two people have died and online videos of beatings and reports of torture in jails have gone viral.

“The situation at this point is extremely dangerous for all these people who are fighting for freedom and for changes,” Survilla said.

Survilla urged European nations to take a stand against Lukashenko, saying young Belarusians who have been exposed to other countries through travel and the internet “don’t want a regime which controls every step of their lives”.


She said she had not been in touch with Tsikhanouskaya, but expressed her support and praised her for being “so effective” during the campaign.

Women in Belarus have always been “very active”, playing a key role in its economy and labour force, Survilla said.

About a third of seats in Belarus’ parliament are held by women and Lukashenko has appointed women to senior positions, but his opponents say female lawmakers hold little clout and face discrimination.

In the run-up to the election, women activists were threatened with sexual violence and having their children taken into state custody, according to Amnesty International.

Lukashenko has said Belarusian society is “not mature enough to vote for a woman” and that “the constitution is not meant for women” and dismissed female rivals as too fragile to run Belarus.

Fear of reprisals in a country where little dissent is allowed has prevented many from voicing their discontent with the government in public - until now.

Female demonstrators known as the Women in White are leading the way, galvanized by two other female candidates barred from taking part in the election, along with opposition figure, Olga Kovalkova, who was jailed for 10 days on Tuesday.

“Belarusians have begun to accept the role of women in politics but the regime in Belarus hasn’t,” Survilla said.

“These women are not a new phenomenon,” Survilla said. “It’s something that already existed, but they couldn’t do anything up to now. Now, together with the whole young generation, after 30 years they are on the streets.”

Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Claire Cozens Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit