When a Belarusian official presented the country’s flattering self-assessment at a forum on sustainable development held at the United Nations in July, Anastasia Kostyugova was there to push back.
“[The government] blindly manipulates statistics to portray Belarus as a happy and prosperous country,” Kostyugova read from her statement. “How can a civil society address its problems without full access to objective information?”
Kostyugova was in New York City as part of a team assembled by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a mother of two and former English teacher who became a major Belarusian democratic opposition leader two years ago but now lives in exile, in Lithuania. Sergei Tikhanovsky, her husband, is the Belarusian pro-democracy activist, YouTuber and video blogger who challenged President Aleksandr Lukashenko in the 2020 elections but was arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison for organizing riots before the voting took place. The trial was condemned as a sham.
After the representative of Lukashenko’s government spoke at the UN forum in July, lambasting economic sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States against Belarus, while painting it as a great place to live, Kostyugova spoke up as a member of civil society at the event. She spoke about the high number of political prisoners, a new death penalty law that rights activists say is aimed at silencing critics and drew attention to widespread human-rights abuses in the country. She and other members of Tsikhanouskaya’s team even had with them an alternative voluntary national review they had drafted.
The human-rights crisis is no exaggeration. Anaïs Marin, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Belarus, submitted a report this month in which she wrote: “The Belarusian authorities have deliberately created a hostile environment in which targeted individuals and professional groups cannot reasonably be expected to remain in the country.”
At 30 years old, Kostyugova is a power to be reckoned with. A Belarusian in exile as well, she is a founder of the iconic Women in White movement, which sparked a series of demonstrations in response to the violent crackdowns on protests against the outcome of the presidential election in 2020 that saw Lukashenko, the only president Belarus has known since it became a country in 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union, was re-elected.
It was due to the creativity and efforts of Kostyugova and her friends that thousands of women in white dresses carrying flowers and singing, flooded the streets across Belarus and around the world to peacefully protest the results of the election that many believe were rigged. Now Kostyugova is a manager of strategic communications for Tsikhanouskaya, assisting the planning to try to ensure that Lukashenko does not win the next presidential election, in 2025, and that democracy will be instituted, saying, “When we’re talking about Lukashenko’s dictatorship, it’s not about peaceful measures.”
In an interview with PassBlue in August, Kostyugova spoke about her path to activism, her recent visit to UN headquarters and the work Tsikhanouskaya’s team is doing to help return the country back to its citizens. She also talks about Belarus’s facilitation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, leaving Belarus highly vulnerable to Western sanctions and threatening its independence. As she said of Belarus and the war, “Our situation with democracy and freedom depends on what happens between Ukraine and Russia.” — ANASTASIIA CARRIER
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
PassBlue: How did you get into activism?
Kostyugova: I lived in Lithuania for a couple of years as a student and when I returned to Minsk, the capital, in 2013, I didn’t like it. Belarus was never a democratic country, but after living elsewhere in Europe, it was too obvious. I started to think, ‘What can I do to love this country more?’ I became a development director on a charity platform that helped kids with terminal illnesses to make their wishes come true. Then I worked for Imena, or Names, a charity project that produced investigative journalism and served as a foundation exposing government negligence and wrongdoings.
PassBlue: You were a founder of the Women in White movement in 2020, protesting the presidential election results in Belarus that year. Can you tell us how it came about?
Kostyugova: After the 2020 elections were stolen and after three days of police violence that followed, my friends and I understood that we needed to create a new way for people to think of and participate in protests. We knew that a lot of people were against the rigged election results, but not all of them were on the streets during the first days. A lot of them were looking from their windows at us. It made sense — when Belarusians saw people at night building barricades, when they saw grenades and that they were being shot at by the police, they didn’t want to go outside and protest. We understood that if we had a few more days [of violence against protesters], people would have stopped coming out and Lukashenko would get away with everything.
We decided to make this first action with women wearing white dresses with flowers. It’s a very vulnerable image. We understood that if you’re on a street with men building barricades, [police] can beat you up because they don’t see you as a woman. But if you’re in a dress, if you’re holding a flower and if you’re singing a song, then you’re a woman. Then they can’t touch you. We weren’t sure they wouldn’t touch us, but it worked. Before, state propaganda had shown protesters and said they were criminals, junkies and prostitutes. We created an image so that even if you tried to make a video of protesters on the streets to turn it into propaganda, you would fail because it looks too peaceful. You could see people who were definitely not junkies or prostitutes. This was how big protest actions on Sundays and Saturdays started. People saw the pictures and started to come out. Our invitation-only Telegram chat grew to 10,000 people in 24 hours.
PassBlue: How did you start working for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition candidate behind the democratic actions in Belarus, who is now exiled?
Kostyugova: After one month, police understood that I was one of the administrators of the Telegram channel and that I was one of the first ladies who marched. They came looking for me at my home, at work. I expected that, so I wasn’t home. A friend with a car drove me to the Lithuanian border. All I had with me was a small backpack and my passport, no extra clothes. Once in Lithuania, I had no idea what I was going to do. Then I heard that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s office was in Vilnius, the capital. So I wrote to them that I was a marketing communications specialist, described my past projects, my vision and offered a few suggestions for what I thought they should do next. I didn’t believe that they would respond, but they did. A week later, I met with Sviatlana. Since then, every day the team is becoming bigger and bigger. Now we have a communications department. The funding comes from institutional foundations, Belarusian businesses and private donations.
PassBlue: Is Tsikhanouskaya planning to run for election in 2025, when Lukashenko’s term ends?
Kostyugova: No. It’s not her thing — she doesn’t want to be a president. Her mandate is to organize new elections, then leave and rest. This is why people actually believe her because — she’s doing this not because she wants power. She’s doing this because her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, is in jail and a lot of other people are in jail. Because she’s a very responsible person.
PassBlue: Tell us about your visit to the UN and speaking at the sustainable development forum in July.
Kostyugova: Our team came to speak at a UN event. There, countries gave reports on sustainable development, including Belarus. Those authorities tried to tell a story about how good and prosperous Belarus is, how beautiful it is and how good its human rights are. And we had an alternative report of what is actually happening in Belarus, about thousands of political prisoners and nothing even close to gender equality. And a lot of other problems are there because we don’t have any rule of law in Belarus. They commit a crime first and then they create a new law that they write to justify it. I gave my speech right after the representative of the Belarusian authorities [Irina Velichko, head of the directorate general for multilateral diplomacy, Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs], and she looked like someone who was not happy about it. We had reactions from UN members, politicians and other diplomats. After two years in politics, I’m used to this: every time people from other countries hear something about Belarus, they are shocked. Yes, this is really how people live in Belarus.
After the trip, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, a nongovernmental human-rights organization, will have its own place as a working group at the UN and provide more insights, like the report we presented. And it’s the first time the nongovernmental Belarusian community is going to be part of the UN working groups and work with them on an official level. [The committee received UN consultative status in July, becoming the first Belarusian nongovernmental organization to do so. Kostyugova is not associated with the committee.] This is something that we’ve been doing for two years, trying to replace the government everywhere they go, because they don’t have any legitimacy. We try to break their connections with international partners because international partners mean money for them.
PassBlue: Belarus borders Russia and Ukraine, and since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine in February, Lukashenko has been accused by a range of media and governments of enabling Vladimir Putin. Russian missiles were launched from Belarusian territory, wounded Russian soldiers are evacuated to Belarusian hospitals. How has Belarus changed since the Russian invasion in Ukraine?
Kostyugova: We are already a part of this war. Belarusians already feel its consequences and its influence on the economy. Many Belarusians are starting to see that Russian influence is not very good for us, that this position of just wanting to be friends with everyone because we live in between very different cultures doesn’t work. Now we have a problem with sovereignty in our country because we can lose it. Lukashenko is making decisions that are very bad for our national interests but good for Russian interests. Before the war, there was something in common between the Belarusian people and Lukashenko — he didn’t want to be a part of Russia. Belarusians didn’t want to be a part of Russia. But now Lukashenko doesn’t have a choice because nobody in the EU or the US wants to give him money. The only person who needs Lukashenko now is Putin because Russia has a lot of sanctions imposed on it.
PassBlue: What’s next for you and Tsikhanouskaya’s team for Belarus?
Kostyugova: When we’re talking about Lukashenko’s dictatorship, it’s not about peaceful measures. You can’t just go out to the streets with a flower and a good poster and. . . . Not when they have weapons and when they can use violence in a very cruel way. For Lukashenko, this is a question of life and death. Our situation with democracy and freedom depends on what happens between Ukraine and Russia. Because for every single plan we have, we need to have our lands mostly free from Russian troops because otherwise it’s too much blood. A lot of Belarusians are helping Ukraine. We know that if Ukraine has more success in this war, we will have our window of opportunity to change our domestic situation.
We welcome your comments on this article. What do you think of a democracy movement for Belarus?
Anastasiia Carrier is a Detroit-based freelance reporter. She earned an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Wire China and The Radcliffe Magazine.