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Opposition In Belarus Wants U.S. To Renew Pressure On Lukashenko's Regime

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Despite massive pro-democracy protests, authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko remains in power in Belarus, which is often called Europe's last dictatorship. NPR's Lucian Kim spoke with the country's exiled opposition leader. She and her supporters are counting on the Biden administration to renew pressure on the regime.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya never saw herself as a politician until last year when her husband was barred from running in a presidential election and jailed. The English teacher and mother of two emerged as Belarus' pro-democracy leader when she decided to run in her husband's place. But five-term incumbent Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner in a disputed election, forcing Tikhanovskaya into exile and setting off months of protests that were met with a violent government crackdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KIM: Tikhanovskaya has since been rallying support from the West, which has not recognized Lukashenko as Belarus' president, to ratchet up sanctions against his regime. She's now planning her first visit to the United States, where she hopes to meet President Biden.

SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA: The U.S.A. is one of the greatest countries in the world. It has to support other countries who are striving for the same values.

KIM: As a candidate, Biden voiced support for Tikhanovskaya. And last month, the State Department sanctioned 43 Belarusian officials for undermining democracy. Tikhanovskaya, who spoke in English and Russian, says there's more the West can do to pressure Lukashenko.

TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Targeted sanctions are effective," she says. "But blacklists should also include judges and police officers who carry out repressions." Tikhanovskaya and her team have been closely documenting those human rights abuses from her exile in Lithuania, just 100 miles from the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: She says the last time she heard her husband on the phone was in October for 10 minutes. Tikhanovskaya says she tries to shield her children from what she calls grown-up problems, and that her 5-year-old daughter still thinks her dad is just on a very long business trip. Tikhanovskaya's personal sacrifice explains her appeal, says Valery Kavaleuski, a former Belarussian diplomat and member of her team.

VALERY KAVALEUSKI: Even for a professional politician, it would be a challenge. And she's been taking this challenge with so much grace, with so much confidence and with so much skill, growing skill.

KIM: Tikhanovskaya's biggest challenge is that Alexander Lukashenko has prevailed for now, thanks to the use of force and support from his only ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

ARTYOM SHRAIBMAN: Such regimes as Belarusian regime, they do not fall that easily just because of moral pressure of hundreds of thousands of people.

KIM: That's Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst in Minsk. He says Tikhanovskaya and her supporters have very few options except taking to the streets. And that's exactly what Tikhanovskaya is calling on Belarusians to start doing again this week.

TIKHANOVSKAYA: I know the Belarusian people are not giving up. They have this inner demand for demonstrations because they want to build a new country. They want new elections.

KIM: Tikhanovskaya hopes that a new wave of protests backed by diplomatic pressure from the West will force Lukashenko to negotiate a peaceful transition of power.

TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: She says Lukashenko can't change people's minds with truncheons and guns. Nobody can force Belarusians to love their dictator, Tikhanovskaya says. And that's why they'll keep on protesting.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "LUX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.