High time to ask out loud: What is behind official Kyiv’s conspicuous distancing from the Belarusian democratic opposition, and in particular, its leader Sviatlana Tsihanouskaya?  Why is she being received by heads of state and political leaders from Washington to Poland and yet is still being ignored by President Volodymyr Zelensky and his administration?

Why is official Ukraine in this regard very much out of sync with its democratic Western partners when solidarity with, and the unity of, those on the frontline of the fight against Russian imperialist aggression is vital?

The latest developments call for this question to be asked very directly, so that it not continue to be swept under the carpet as if it didn't matter. It matters a lot and impacts on Ukraine’s strategy and reputation.

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On this very day, Ukraine’s mortal enemy, Vladimir Putin, is again being hosted by his Belarusian vassal, dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, in Minsk, almost a year since he was last there. He is participating in a summit of the anti-Western Russian-run Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the Belarusian capital.

And on this same day, Tsihanouskaya, who is widely believed to have won the Belarusian presidential election in 2020 that Lukashenko rigged, brutally suppressing peaceful mass protests that followed, issued another tweet on X expressing her solidarity with Ukraine.

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Both Minsk and Beijing said the training was scheduled a long ago and the China’s force projection to the Atlantic Alliance’s eastern frontier was peaceful and not provocative.

In it, she welcomed the Nov. 22 decision of the Ukrainian parliament “to impose sanctions on Lukashenko’s cronies and military complex.”

Diplomatically, she did not ask why it has taken Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, so long to do so, despite the fact that Ukraine’s allies had imposed sanctions against the Russian and Belarusian defense sectors much earlier. 

While Lukashenko has been at Moscow’s bid and call and kept an iron grip on the Belarusian population, Tsihanouskaya and her team – Belarus’s democratic government in exile – have been campaigning very hard to raise support for their cause and for the Lukashenko regime to be ousted. To this day, it is keeping her husband along with hundreds of other Belarusians as political prisoners in its Belarusian Gulag.

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Tsihanouskaya was a total newcomer to politics who was thrust unexpectedly into the political limelight after her husband was arrested and she took over his candidacy for the Belarusian presidency. 

Forced into exile, it is understandable that initially, she was very guarded in her political statements, including about Russian-Ukrainian relations. But since Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine in February 2022 with Lukashenko’s active collaboration, she has become increasingly outspoken in affirming Belarus’s democratic European self-identification and support for Ukraine. 

In September she told the European Parliament that without Ukraine and Belarus, the political project for Europe will not be complete: “The accession of Belarus and Ukraine to the EU will lead to the final collapse of the Evil Empire. Forever…”

For their part, members of the European Parliament recognized Lukashenko as an accomplice in crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine.

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But for some reason, official Kyiv has continued to shun her. President Zelensky has neither extended his hand to her in solidarity nor had much to say about the struggle for freedom in neighboring Belarus.

I had the pleasure of meeting the Belarusian President-elect earlier this month at the Web Summit in Lisbon and interviewing her for Kyiv Post. There was no ambiguity in her position. She strongly supports the fight of the Ukrainian people against Russian aggression. She understands that without a free Ukraine, there can be no free Belarus.

But clearly, Kyiv’s strange standoffishness is felt and hurts. She adds in her most recent tweet: “Targeted int'l measures against the regime are crucial, but we also need increased support for the Belarusian people, democratic forces & civil society in our fight for freedom.”

So what is behind Kyiv’s incongruous behavior towards the democratic forces in a neighboring country seeking freedom and liberation from Russian domination? Some sort of behind-the-scenes agreements with Lukashenko? Money, business, mutual advantages, military factors?

Perhaps before 2022, but today? Surely not the naïve assumption that there can be any dealings with a puppet of Moscow who has allowed his country to become a staging area for Russian military forces, requested that Russian tactical nuclear weapons be deployed on his territory, and who relies on crude repression to crush freedom at home and stay in control?

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And one more final thought. This week Ukraine is marking the 10th anniversary of the Euromaidan protests that turned into the Revolution of Dignity.  One of the first democratic martyrs shot down at that time was a Belarusian supporter of Ukraine, Mikhail Zhyzneuski. A white-red-white Belarusian national flag still marks the site where he fell on Kyiv’s Hrushevsky Street. And today Belarusian volunteers are fighting together with Ukrainian forces against the Russian invaders.

 

 

Photo of Mikhail Zhyzneuski

 

Seeing President Zelensky lay a wreath on Nov. 21 in Kyiv to honor the martyrs of the EuroMaidan accompanied by the president of Moldova, Maia Sandu, was very touching. But I could not help but think: how much more powerful would that image have been for the entire world to see with the Belarusian Presidential-elect alongside them? 

I remain puzzled why Sanu has officially received Tsihanouskaya in Chisinau while Zelensky has not welcomed her to Kyiv.  We have a right to know.

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