I’ve come here to meet with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition candidate for president of Belarus and the face of the revolution that is shaking Europe’s last dictatorship 100 miles away in Minsk. Ms. Tikhanovskaya arrives a few minutes late at the drab premises of a local nongovernmental organization that deals with “East-West relations” and whose address had been, until the last minute, a closely held secret.
She is accompanied by a campaign aide, a thinly disguised Lithuanian security team and an activist from the Washington-based Freedom House who seems to have taken her under his wing since her arrival 10 days earlier, shortly after the election she claims to have won. According to the official count, incumbent Alexander Lukashenko defeated her, 80% to 10%.
Besides her youthful appearance (she’s 37), adjusted by a beige pantsuit that makes her look like a young Angela Merkel, the first thing that strikes me is her diffidence. She makes three attempts at choosing a seat around the horseshoe of formica tables. “I’m not used to this,” she says in halting English, as she moves to a fourth chair. “I have spoken by telephone with many diplomats,” she goes on, “but not yet with the press. You must understand that I have been here in Vilnius in temporary exile since Aug. 9,” the day of the election. “But until yesterday, I was in quarantine because of Covid. And you are one of the first foreigners with whom I have met.”
As if to reassure herself that she hasn’t said too much, she casts a quick glance at the Freedom House man seated at the other end of the room, who will be present for the entire 90-minute interview, which we conduct in English.
Before our meeting, she recorded a video in which she calls Mr. Lukashenko’s re-election a fraud and appeals to Europe not to recognize it. I tell her I’ve seen the video and hope French President Emmanuel Macron will advocate for it.
“Advocate?” she asks, startled. “You mean, ‘lawyer’? Because there will be a trial? A tribunal?”
She turns to the Freedom House man, who explains in Russian that “advocate” can also be a verb, meaning “to champion.”
“France is the first country that supported me,” she says. “On July 14, in the midst of the campaign, I received a postcard from your ambassador. Followed by an invitation. That was important. We were so alone at the moment.”
How did this unassuming woman come to embody the revolt against President Lukashenko, whose murderous brutality and links with his Russian “big brother” have kept him in power since 1994?
“Ex-president,” she cuts in, suddenly changing her tone. Now her voice is clipped, her expression triumphant. “His election was rigged. No serious person anywhere has recognized his legitimacy. So you should refer to him as the ex-president.”
Very well, but can fraud really account for a victory by such a wide margin? “Of course. We have a test sample from 100 polling stations, from which we were able to determine that the results were exactly the opposite: 80% for me, 10% for him. Not to mention the fact that 45% of the voters supposedly voted by mail and, wouldn’t you know, all for him. It’s a farce!”
The bashful novice of 15 minutes ago has turned combative, wielding percentages as if they were arms. “It’s simple, you know. Putin got 78% last month for the constitutional reform that gives him full power forever and a day. I’ll bet you anything that Lukashenko, who’s a big, vain, macho type, decided to go one up on Putin, thinking: Hey, let’s go for 80%.”
It’s the first time Vladimir Putin’s name has come up, and she follows it by shifting her tone to one of conciliation. “What is clear,” she says calmly, like a responsible official weighing her words, “is that the Russians are our neighbors. We do more business with them than we do with Europe. Why? Surely there are reasons for that, though I don’t claim to know what they are. I am neither an economist nor a politician. But there must be reasons. And no one will be able go against that. No one, not even I, will be able to make a 180-degree turn. Belarus is not Ukraine.”
The night before, I had wanted to stop in Minsk before coming to Vilnius. I showed up at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, at the check-in counter of the Belarusian national airline, Belavia. Computer alert! I have been declared “undesirable” and am barred from boarding. In 2014, during the Freedom Square protest movement in Ukraine, Russia blacklisted me, and Belarus evidently follows Moscow’s lead. She nods with delight as I recount my misadventure.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya describes herself as “an ordinary person, a housewife.” A mother of two, she taught English before entering politics, which she did “out of love.”
“My husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was the candidate. He’s an influential blogger. He was filming people in the streets, asking them what wasn’t right in their towns and in their lives. And he was posting his interviews on a YouTube channel. The authorities were afraid of the success he was having. They saw that his posts often led to unauthorized demonstrations. So they threw him in prison, once, twice—then a third time, after he announced his intention to run for president, and this time for good, with an indefinite sentence. So there you have it. I took his place. I just decided, out of love, to take over.”
She gazes pensively out the window, then resumes: “And the miracle is that it worked. In our country, you have to collect 100,000 signatures to stand for election. Real signatures.” She picks up a note pad and gestures as if signing her name.
“Well, to everyone’s surprise,” she says, “lines formed in every city. People arrived early in the morning and spent hours in the rain waiting in front of a tent, at a market, at the entrance to a movie theater. Sometimes police would appear with their wolfish eyes and try to break up the lines by saying that it wasn’t a collection of signatures anymore, it was turning into a demonstration. But people chanted ‘Freedom’ or ‘We love Belarus,’ or my husband’s name. They held fast. On June 19, I had my signatures. A popular movement was born out of nothing. It was incredible.”
Once, she says, a man phoned her. “He told me that if I took this too far I would be ruining my life and the lives of my children. His voice wasn’t really threatening; it was gentle. That’s what scared me the most.” She thought of giving up. “I’m not very brave, you know. But I thought of Sergei and held on. . . . He gave me the courage and inspiration I needed.” He did so even though she’s unable to visit or speak with him: “He’s in solitary confinement,” she says. “But we didn’t need to speak in order to communicate.”
From Europe and the West, she says, she wants help to “convince Lukashenko that his time is up and he has to go.” But how? In response, she invites me to play “a little game”: “I’m the Belarusian people, and you’re Lukashenko.”
Assuming her role, she asks: “My dear Alexander, do you wish your country to be prosperous and happy?”
“Yes,” I reply, in my role as Mr. Lukashenko.
“Do you grasp that we, the people, are fed up with you?”
“What if they are?”
“Now look out that window,” she parries. “What do you see?”
I’m tempted to break character and tell her that I see some of the blocks of Soviet architecture that, after World War II, disfigured Vilnius, once one of Europe’s loveliest cities. But she insists, impishly scolding me: “Don’t forget the rules. You are Lukashenko. Now, if you are Lukashenko, you see a people to whom you have never stopped saying, for 26 years, ‘You are nothing,’ but who, now, suddenly are standing up unafraid.”
If she succeeds in toppling Mr. Lukashenko, she says, “what I want is not necessarily to govern. I will of course assume my role as national leader, but with three priorities: to free political prisoners, to bring to justice the criminals among the anti-riot police, and then to organize truly free elections, which we have never had in this country.”
She deserves the West’s support. We should encircle her with one of those chains of solidarity that saved so many Soviet dissidents. If we do, she may come to speak not only of “change” but of democracy, a word she didn’t pronounce during our interview.
Then perhaps the Belarusian people will succeed in shedding a submissive past that is killing them, a past that, seen from Vilnius, a courageous city on the front line against Putin, is a poison just waiting to spread. Here too, as in Brussels, the fate of Europe is being played out.
Mr. Lévy is author, most recently, of “The Virus in the Age of Madness.”