Halifax professor recalls growing up with Belarusian opposition leader
TORONTO -- Pro-democracy protests continue to grip Belarus, and one woman is known around the world for leading the calls for change.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the country's opposition leader, currently living in exile after violence broke out six weeks ago. But before that, Tsikhanouskaya spent her summers growing up in Ireland, where she became a family friend of David Deane, who now lives in Halifax.
Deane, who is a professor at the Atlantic School of Theology, told CTV's Your Morning on Monday that Tsikhanouskaya spent nearly every summer at his family’s home from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.
"My dad had a charitable organization, which brought across children from the region most affected by the Chernobyl disaster, and they would spend a month or two every summer in Ireland," Deane explained.
"For about 10 years, first as a recipient of this care and then as a translator working with the charitable organization, Sviatlana or 'Sveta' as we knew her, came across," he added.
Growing up, Deane said Tsikhanouskaya was a "typical Belarusian child."
"Particularly the girls from Belarus are extremely well-educated, extremely competent. She herself was largely no different from the other kids, although many of the other younger smaller children, particularly those who were homesick, tended to gravitate towards her for care and compassion," Deane said.
Deane admits he is surprised that Tsikhanouskaya went into politics. He said she isn't necessarily a politician, but rather a mother who did not what her children to grow up in the same kind of Belarus she did.
"She isn't someone who plays the political game, she's not someone who is a political operative. Really to understand the Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya movement, it's to understand a very, very typical working class mother who wants a better life for her children and for her country," Deane said.
"But at the same time, that kind of compassion and that kind of courage is quite typical for her."
Belarus has been in the midst of a political crisis following accusations of vote rigging in the presidential elections held on Aug. 9, which incumbent leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed he won with a vast majority, triggering massive protests and general strikes.
Since then, the Belarusian authorities have been cracking down on demonstrators calling for Lukashenko's resignation, with many reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees and protesters being brought forward.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation in Belarus last week, calling for new elections to be held and new sanctions to be levied against Lukashenko and his regime. The EU also pointed out that Tsikhanouskaya, who was the main democratic contender in the elections, is considered by many Belarusians as the actual winner of the vote and the country's real president-elect.
"The demand of Belarusians is simple: A free, and fair, election. This is the demand of the protesters on the streets. This is the slogan of the people on strike in numerous factories across the country. This is the wish of the whole nation," Tsikhanouskaya previously said during an EU meeting.
Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania with her children after the election, while her husband remains jailed in Belarus.
While he last spoke to her the night before the election, Deane said his family is regularly in touch with Tsikhanouskaya and talked to her via video call two days ago.
Despite the struggles Belarus is currently facing, Deane said Tsikhanouskaya is “doing a lot better” than when he last spoke with her.
"When she left Belarus, she was very, very anxious. The night before the election and the election itself saw her essentially be threatened by the government -- they essentially threatened to kill her children unless she left the country," he said.
Since then, Deane said, Tsikhanouskaya has grown into her role as opposition leader.
He said she has recieved outpouring support from international leaders including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was one of the first Western leaders to contact her. Deane said Trudeau has been in contact with Tsikhanouskaya three times since, which has "meant an awful lot to her."
"Support like that from leaders like that and from people all over Canada and all across the world have really meant the world to her, and have given her the strength and the courage to continue on her struggle," Deane said.