Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence

Situation in Belarus: Discussion with Ms Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Ms Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya:

I thank the Chairman. Ladies and gentlemen, Members of Parliament and my dear Irish people, Ireland is the country that has a special place in my heart. The last time I came to Ireland was 17 years ago and I am extremely happy to be back. I was honoured to meet the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, esteemed Members of Parliament and my beloved Deane family. I am grateful for the opportunity to address the committee today on behalf of the people of Belarus, who are fighting for our right to choose our future.

I am addressing the committee in English today because I learned the language during my three wonderful summers as a Chernobyl kid with the Deanes in County Tipperary. I remember how everything felt totally different, new and exciting for ten-year-old Sviatlana, a child from a small town in southern Belarus. I remember climbing up Knockshigowna hill after having delicious ice cream from the truck which drove around Roscrea. Henry and Marian Deane treated us just like their own kids, with utmost care and affection. The Deane children accepted us right into the family without any jealously or bitter feelings. Everybody was coming up with exciting things for us today everyday to relax. I am immensely grateful to the Irish people for caring about Belarusian children affected by the nuclear disaster. Yesterday, I visited the house for the first time in 17 years. I was smothered with kisses and hugs by Henry and Marian. With tears on my cheeks, I recalled how deeply my Irish family cared about me and other Belarusian kids. My dear Marian still bossed me around the house and I recalled which kitchen drawer had the salt in it. I felt as if I had never left. The only thing that had changed was that as the ice cream man handed me my delicious cone, he shouted "Žyvye Byelaru" - long live Belarus. My story is just one of many thousands of human stories that bring Belarus and Ireland closer. Also, our countries have many more similarities than one would expect. Both Belarus and Ireland have had a tumultuous path to independence from an imposing neighbour. Both Belarus and Ireland have a national language we are doing our best to preserve. Both Belarus and Ireland have a long path of fighting for our right to choose our future which Belarusians have not yet walked to the end.

At this very moment, my country is experiencing a Chernobyl of human rights. Every hour a piece of terrifying news comes from Belarus.

We have been trapped in this nightmare since last summer when the autocratic president refused to accept he lost an election. Instead, he decided to wage a war against his own people. He is nothing more than a usurper clinging to power with all his might.

Just two days ago, Belarusian security forces raided the offices of at least 19 civil society organisations - human rights defenders, sociologists, political parties and charity funds - across the country. Four volunteers of Strana dlya zhizni, A Country to Live In, the movement launched by my husband Sergei, were arrested. They assembled parcels and brought packages to political prisoners. One of them, Ilya Mironov, wrote more than 2,000 letters and brought more than 100 kg of food and warm clothing to political prisoners. Exactly a week ago, the regime cracked down on the oldest news outlet in Belarus, Nasha Niva. Its editor-in-chief, Jahor Marcinovi, was arrested and the newspaper's website was blocked. Later that day, we found out that an ambulance visited him at the detention centre.

All in all, more than 35,000 Belarusians have been arrested and hundreds were tortured. There have been at least ten regime-related deaths. Some 555 people are recognised as political prisoners in Belarus today and the number is growing every day. Moreover, the Belarusian crisis outgrew its borders. Lukashenko ordered a forced landing of a European aeroplane to arrest an opposition blogger. The regime is allegedly assisting migrants to illegally cross the border with Lithuania and Poland. On 5 July, Lithuania declared a state of emergency because of the influx of migrants passing through Belarus. The dictatorship in Belarus became a regional security problem but despite the constant repression brave Belarusians find ways to protest.

Our goal has not changed – free and fair elections. We did not give up and we are building structures on the ground. We have a wide network of volunteers working in all six regions of Belarus distributing Samizdat printed newspapers telling the truth for those without Internet. Some 16,000 workers have already joined the workers movement and are preparing the country for a nationwide strike. Most of those people risk getting detained any day, but they continue their struggle despite fear and risks because they have a vision of a free Belarus that we will all achieve.

In these trying times I ask committee members to care. We are aware of Ireland's principled position in support of democracy in Belarus. However, it is not words but actions that matter. Every little bit of care and empathy, every small step, helps because there are millions of us and there will be millions of steps. In the same way that Irish people helped Belarus after the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, there is something that everybody could do. I call on every Irish person to write a letter to a political prisoner. Receiving a letter from abroad makes the day a small holiday for them because it shows that there is someone far away who cares about them. I urge people to talk about them in schools, colleges, churches and friends' groups.

I call on Irish charities and NGOs to accept children of the repressed for rehabilitation on the basis of the existing programmes. My personal experience shows that they go a very long way. I call on the Irish Government to increase support for Belarusian civil society, especially as it is being destroyed. I urge the committee to bring international attention to the topic of Belarus, particularly through organising a formal meeting at the UN Security Council at the earliest opportunity. I call on the Irish Government and the international democratic community to adopt stronger co-ordinated sanctions. We need to treat the problem not the symptoms. That is why sanctions are important. They are the only way to bring the dictator to justice.

I thank the committee for its solidarity, support and for being with us and standing with Belarus.