October 11 (UPI) – If the elections had not been rigged, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya would have become President of Belarus in August 2020. Perhaps she would have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
When her husband, Siarhei Cichanoŭski, popular blogger and presidential candidate, and other prominent opposition candidates were jailed or forced to flee, the 37-year-old inexperienced former English teacher took charge. to oppose the authoritarian regime.
She united the opposition by running for president on two key promises: if she won, she would free all political prisoners and she would hold free and fair elections. Supporters saw her as a real runner for the people, and seeing tens of thousands of people participating in her rallies, she knew she couldn’t back down. She hasn’t done it yet.
Tsikhanouskaya was seen as a strong candidate for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, alongside jailed Russian anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. This year’s deserving laureates, journalists Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov from Russia, received the award “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a prerequisite for democracy and lasting peace. “
Democracy, as we know, is under threat globally. Voting rights, press freedom, civil liberties and the integrity of elections appear to be under pressure everywhere. Unlike the 2020 US presidential election, which has been repeatedly held legally free and fair, the election in Belarus in August 2020 which kept dictator Alexander Lukashenko in power was not recognized as legitimate by the United States. European Union, United Kingdom or United States.
When the results were announced 80% for Lukashenko and 10% for Tsikhanuskaya, people knew they were on gas and erupted in the largest known peaceful protests in Belarus. Lukashenko responded with vicious and violent repression. Tsikhanouskaya was essentially kidnapped and forced into exile, and the dictator rushed to inaugurate himself.
In exile, Tsikhanouskaya’s popularity increased around the world, but she resisted becoming a populist. She uses the spotlight to highlight the daily courage of Belarusians, human rights violations and the growing global threat of growing authoritarianism.
I got to know Tsikhanoskaya through a play. The famous Belarusian screenwriter and playwright Andrei Kureichik, himself forced into exile, wrote an extraordinary documentary play on these events in Belarus, featuring Tsikhanouskaya as the central character.
A few months after the election, Kureichik’s play has been performed more than 120 times around the world, drawing attention to the struggles in Belarus while amplifying concerns over Nigeria’s dwindling democracy in Los Angeles in Hong Kong.
I produced a digital reading of the piece and attended dozens of virtual readings around the world from September 2020 through April. I watched “Sviatlana” speak in English, Mandarin, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian and several other languages. In our own reading at the University of Illinois, Nisi Sturgis, an actress known for playing female roles with surprising ferocity and silent, underrated power, played Tsikhanouskaya.
The play captures in the character a woman who, stumbling in the role of leader, learns to assert herself. Kureichik wrote the play before the real Tsikhanouskaya had a place on the world stage. Her courage to speak out when repeatedly told to shut up has touched women around the world deeply.
Within a year, she has grown from a hesitant galvanizer of the people to a distinguished diplomat and a force for global democracy. Amazed, I witnessed several of his interviews and two virtual Belarus hearings before the US Congress earlier this year.
I saw her transform into a powerful, influential and genuine stateswoman who met heads of state and foreign ministers across Europe, the United States and Canada. For me, she combines the courage and pragmatism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom she has met, and the grace and humility of Princess Diana, whom she admires.
She was unexpectedly chosen in her role, but she performed it brilliantly. Even if she had won the award, drawing renewed global attention to the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, she would continue her public fight for political prisoners and free and fair elections until they win.
For Tsikhanouskaya, unfortunately, this show will continue.
Valleri Robinson is a Public Voices member of the OpEd project and associate professor of theater at the University of Illinois.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.