Even when she addresses the audience afterwards, the exiled pro-democracy opposition leader of Belarus contains her emotions. Despite her rapid ascent into politics – just three years ago she was a housewife and mother with no thought of working in international government – publicly, she is a polished, consummate politician.
"I recognise all of the stories we heard today,” she says, briefly referencing her husband, Siarhei, who has been in an isolation cell for the past 40 days, arguably the toughest part so far of the 18-year sentence he began serving two years ago. He sleeps on bare tiles on the floor of the dark, unheated cell and is forced to wake up to exercise every two hours during the night to ensure his body temperature does not drop dangerously low.
Neither Tsikhanouskaya, nor the couple's two young children, who all fled to Lithuania, have been able to speak to him since he was imprisoned in May 2020. The only news she has of his well-being comes from his lawyer, who is allowed to visit him once a week.
When Siarhei was arrested, two days after he announced his intention to stand in the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections, his wife did not hesitate to put her own name forward in his place. She was widely believed to have won at least 60 per cent of the vote, but was ousted by dictator and Russian ally Alexander Lukashenko, who claimed victory, forcing her to flee into exile in Lithuania, where she has now set up an alternative Belarusian leadership.
The elections sparked widespread protests in Belarus, lasting months, during which time protesters faced human rights abuses and violence from the authorities. Thousands of people were imprisoned for taking part in the demonstrations and campaigners believe up to 11 people were killed. More than 1,300 people are still behind bars.
When I speak to Tsikhanouskaya about the performance the next day, at a meeting in Edinburgh this week, I wonder if the dramatisation felt too close to home. Theatre company ice&fire’s performance of The People Woke Up, funded by Creative Scotland, tells the story of a real prisoner, Dzmitry Furmanau, whose experience in an isolation cell is not only very close to that of her husband, but who was actually one of her campaign managers during the election. Unlike Siarhei, he has since been released.
A chink in the professional armour appears. "I knew one of the prisoners personally,” she says. “I know these stories very well. But when you hear these stories over and over again, you think about the fact that your husband is experiencing the same thing at the moment and you can’t stop crying.”
Since she last saw Siarhei, her life as an “ordinary Belarusian” has, in her own words, been turned upside down. Even Siarhei, a businessman and popular YouTuber in Belarus, was far from a career politician, gradually nurturing an interest in democracy and human rights as he interviewed Belarusian citizens around the country for a YouTube programme he hosted.
Meanwhile, Tsikhanouskaya, a former languages teacher, stayed at home to look after the couple’s two children – a son, now aged 12, who was born deaf and a daughter, seven.
"I was an ordinary person who didn’t care about the policy of the Belarusian government,” she says. “I took care of my family. I wasn’t involved in politics and didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to understand how everything works, how our foreign policy works, who are our friends and our enemies. This was the position of most people.
“In Belarus under the dictatorship, what can you do? Nothing because you are a small person. We have to change this slavery mentality.”
Now, two-and-a-half years on, she has been thrust into the life of a world leader. Just this month, she held meetings with dozens of foreign ministers, prime ministers and presidents at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
She hosted a briefing with diplomats from 25 countries in Lithuania and addressed numerous international gatherings online. She arrived in Scotland on Wednesday night straight from the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, where she spoke to party members and sat down with leader Sir Keir Starmer to discuss UK support for Belarus.
When I arrive early for our meeting, I come across two plain-clothes police officers wearing earpieces, who are checking out the security of the cafe where we have agreed to meet. The arrangements for every aspect of her two-day visit to Scotland have changed multiple times as meetings with politicians, human rights groups and universities are scrutinised by her security detail.
"It was so difficult, especially at the beginning, to understand how the political world works,” she says. “I was immediately thrown into this life, meeting presidents and prime ministers. In Belarus, you are always scared of politicians, of authority of any kind because they are regarded as being from heaven. But I see in democratic countries, politicians are normal people, who really want to help, they are open. And step by step, I became more relaxed during the meetings.”
She is now happy her baptism of fire has stood her in good stead for a future in politics.
"Those people who are studying politics at universities, they would never get such experience,” she says. “My teachers, my lecturers, they were presidents and prime minsters. I worked – and studied – in the field.
"Of course, I still don’t have enough knowledge, I still forget sometimes, for example, the difference between organisations, but I know what I want to achieve and what I want to say at every meeting. I have to defend the interests of my country.”
She is clear what she wants to say – Lukashenko’s government, regarded worldwide as a a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin and subject to Western sanctions as a result, does not represent the Belarusian people.
Lukashenko has been the only ruler of Belarus since 1994, following independence from the Soviet Union three years earlier. Initially popular as a centrist, anti-corruption reformist, he stood for the new role of president of Belarus against five other candidates, winning an overwhelming majority of the vote.
However, he soon demonstrated a pro-Russian bias. Shortly after his inauguration, he proposed a new Union of Slavic states to the Russian Duma, which would culminate in the creation of the Union of Russia and Belarus four years later.
This gradual “Russification” of the country saw the use of the Belarusian language almost disappear. Many Belarusians were afraid to speak their own language, or be seen reading books in Belarusian, for fear of repercussions.
Tsikhanouskaya says Belarusian became the language of the resistance movement in 2020.
She admits she only learned to speak Belarusian from her grandparents, with her day-to-day life conducted in Russian. She sees major parallels between the situation in Ukraine and Belarus – with one major difference being the Belarusian people are oppressed and not able to fight back against the aggressor.
“Russia doesn’t see Belarus and Ukraine as independent countries,” she says. “It’s not only about borders, it’s about language, identity and cultural issues. This is what we have to fight for. We always had groups of people who promoted the Belarusian language, but it was so hard to go against the pro-Russian machine.
"But now, after 2020, more and more people are speaking the Belarusian language and it is fantastic to see how we are recovering our identity. People, even if they speak with mistakes, at least they are trying to speak it. It is a sign you are on the side of an independent Belarus.”
Tsikhanouskaya adds: “Belarus was discovered for the world only in 2020 after the mass protests in our country and we realised that so few people know about our history, our identity. Now we are mentioned mainly as an oppressor in the war and it’s important to put across the message that there is a regime which is collaborating in this war and the people actually want different things – and Lukashenko does not represent the real desire of the Belarusian people.
“Lukashenko is backed by Putin and when Ukraine wins – and they will win – it means Putin will be weaker and Lukashenko will be weaker. You can’t just solve the Ukrainian question, because while Lukashenko is in power, there will be a threat [from Belarus] as well. Lukashenko can always be used by the Kremlin to threaten our neighbouring countries."
After our interview, Tsikhanouskaya is due to meet First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, with whom she plans to discuss the possibility of creating a cross-party working group of MSPs who support a democratic Belarus, as well as an internship scheme for young, exiled Belarusians at the Scottish Parliament. She wants to create a strong team of researchers and advisers who have experience of a democratic parliament, in preparation for if – or as she sees it, when – Lukashenko is overturned and she can return to Belarus as leader.
In August, she announced the creation of the United Transitional Cabinet for Belarus, a cross-party collective executive body working in exile to defend the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus and restore constitutional legality and the rule of law to the country. The cabinet has seven members, representing sectors from culture to security, defence and finance.
"It works as proper government,” she says. “We understand the situation can develop in any direction and I am grateful that international leaders accept me as president, but I need to show that I am not alone, that I have a team who is working hard to co-ordinate our actions between countries and inside Belarus.”
She recalls the day, following Siarhei’s arrest, that she went to the Electoral Commission in Minsk to register herself as a candidate.
“When he was detained, it was my spontaneous decision to follow his course,” she says. “I couldn’t calculate the development of the situation. My first step was for my husband. I didn’t think about the future, about elections. I did it for him.
"But when I saw how many people supported my candidacy, I realised it was time for me to take this responsibility."
She says the authorities did not initially take her seriously. There are few women in Belarusian government.
"Lukashenko was sure that I was doing this for fun,” she says, “Because who would vote for a woman? Nobody. For a housewife with no political background? But he didn’t gauge the mood of the Belarusian people.
"Every day was filled with fear. I was scared for my children, but I didn’t feel alone. I felt supported by thousands and thousands of people – and it wasn’t about me as a person, it was about change. It was about people’s awakening. It was unexpected for Lukashenko.”
She felt the same when Siarhei began to talk about running for election. His political awakening was gradual.
“For a time, he started to ask questions of himself – ‘what’s wrong with our country; why is our economy failing; why can’t our businesses work normally in Belarus?’” she recalls.
"And he started to visit different people in Belarus just asking their opinion [for his YouTube channel] and it became very popular. When he started to do this, it wasn’t about politics, it was about communication with people. But he started to ask inconvenient questions and he became a threat to the regime and he was detained.”
Tsikhanouskaya adds: "I was scared for him, personally, because I knew he was going against this huge machine.”
The family home in Lithuania is, she says, full of pictures of Siarhei, while she makes sure that they all watch his YouTube videos as often as possible, to make sure the children do not forget the sound of his voice. However, she is worried her new role – and Siarhei’s imprisonment – will have an effect on them.
"What I am worried about now is my children,” she says. “Sometimes I see them only one day a week – and this is me, who was at home and spent all my time with the children for the last ten years.
"My daughter knows her daddy is in jail and it is a difficult situation and she is crying more, missing him. My task now, as their mother, is to speak to them every day about their daddy. The memory of children is very short and it is important that my daughter knows how her daddy speaks, the sound of his voice. They feel his presence every day even if he is far away.”
Now one of her major aims is to raise the plight of political prisoners in Belarus. Three MSPs – Willie Rennie, Liam McArthur and Alexander Burnett – have already joined charity Libereco’s “godparents” adoption scheme to support individuals who have been put in jail in Belarus. Prisoners detained during the 2020 protests include professional footballer Aliaksandr Ivulin – the “adopted” prisoner of Mr McArthur.
The campaign, however, is a doubled edged sword for Tsikhanouskaya’s family.
"I know that he [Siarhei] may be punished for what I am doing,” she says. “My strong speech or explaining what is going on for political prisoners can be reflected on him. But he knows that every step I take is for them.”
She adds: "I believe my children, too, understand what I am doing, that I am fighting for their daddy, who they miss so much, and fighting for thousands of political prisoners and for the very existence of Belarus.”