Politics·Analysis

Exiled opponents of Belarus regime have a plan for victory — and it could start with Ukraine

It's being called the Pieramoha Plan — the "Victory Plan." Never heard of it? You're not alone. The plan for civil resistance in Belarus being touted by opposition leader-in-exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has received very little attention in the West.

While Ukraine fights for its existence in a shooting war, the Belarusian opposition looks for an opening

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, right, takes part in a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in front of the Russian embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania on March 4, 2022. (Mindaugas Kulbis/The Associated Press)

It's being called the Pieramoha Plan — the "Victory Plan."

Never heard of it? You're not alone.

The plan for civil resistance in Belarus being touted by opposition leader-in-exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya — who is in Canada this week and is set to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — has received very little attention in the West.

The world has been focused instead on the shooting war in Ukraine. Tsikhanouskaya, who sat down with Canadian journalists for a roundtable this week, acknowledged that her country and the actions of the autocratic regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko are often forgotten in the current crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko shake hands during a news conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 9, 2021. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

"We see that sometimes the participation of [the] Lukashenko regime is overlooked," said Tsikhanouskaya, who forcefully points out that Moscow would not have been able to do what it has in Ukraine without a pliable regime in Belarus.

Tsikhanouskaya is widely considered to have won the 2020 presidential election. She was driven into exile following a brutal crackdown on opposition by Lukashenko.

In her wide-ranging discussion with Canadian reporters, she — along with her advisers — explained how a victory in Ukraine is key to toppling the current Beralrusian leadership.

"We don't see Ukrainians as our enemies," Tsikhanouskaya said. "We are very close nations and we always had a good relationship."

That may be true for the people — it's not necessarily true of the governments. While Ukraine has a history of being more western-oriented in its outlook, experts say Belarus has looked more toward Moscow for its political, economic and military support.

The opposition-in-exile saw an opportunity earlier this year with the onset of full-blown hostilities in Ukraine to set up an office where they have coordinated activities with the Ukrainian government.

Sabotage, leaflets, online attacks

"We distribute leaflets with honest news. We sent information about the deployment of Russian troops and missile launchers to warn the Ukrainian army," Tsikhanouskaya said. "Partisans carry out sabotage actions on the railways to prevent the advance of Russian equipment and weapons."

The opposition employs hackers who, Tsikhanouskaya claimed, successfully infiltrated an unidentified Russian state oversight agency and obtained two terabytes of data and correspondence which will be shared with the media.

But Tsikhanouskaya said the Belarusian opposition believes that "there should be partnership between our countries when the war is over."

A member of the Belarus diaspora holds a placard depicting Alexander Lukashenko with blood on his mouth as she with others take part in a rally outside the Belarusian embassy in Kyiv on August 13, 2020. (Sergei Supinksy/AFP via Getty Images)

And that is where the "victory plan" kicks in.

Tsikhanouskaya said the exiles are trying to keep the flame of resistance inside Belarus alive and claim to be working with several different "underground groups" that are sometimes "coordinating, sometimes not."

The most visible signs of that were the railway workers who sabotaged the movement of Russian military equipment last spring. Tsikhanouskaya's staff said there are also local postmasters who distribute opposition leaflets along with state newspapers.

Waiting for the right moment

The opposition council in exile calls on its members and underground groups to be active, self-organized and ready to act when the right moment arrives.

Tsikhanouskaya insisted they stick to non-violent resistance and don't anticipate armed resistance to the Belarusian regime.

But what is the right moment?

That depends, Tsikhanouskaya said. It could be a victory in Ukraine which shakes the Kremlin's grip on Belarus. It could be the outbreak of political upheaval in Russia.

In addition to being asked to impose more sanctions on Belarusian officials, and for winter clothing for Belarusians fighting with the Ukrainian military, Canada could help fund civil society groups and independent media which would help keep the resistance going, she said.

It could also consider launching humanitarian programs for children of former political prisoners who fled the country.

Experts in both history and political science say that with the battles inside Ukraine taking up so much public attention, few people are thinking in detail about what happens after the war — and the resulting instability that could rock the rest of eastern Europe.

"The history is that Ukraine and Belarus are going to be tied together, but it's more likely Ukraine is going to free itself and that institutes some kind of long-running change in Russia," said Matthew Schmidt, an eastern European expert at the University of New Haven, Connecticut.

Whether a battlefield defeat for Moscow translates into a peaceful uprising in Belarus, he said, is another question.

An aerial view shows the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, crowded by supporters of EU integration during a rally in Kiev on Dec. 1, 2013. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

What needs to happen in Belarus is a "Maidan moment in order to take down Lukashenko," Schmidt said, referring to the 2014 pro-European uprising that swept a Moscow-friendly government from power in Ukraine.

"But the problem is Belarus isn't Ukraine" from an economic, social and political point of view, Schmidt said. The biggest difference is Lukashenko himself — an authoritarian with a history of violent crackdowns. 

Another question, said Cold War historian Sean Maloney of the Royal Military College of Canada, is whether Russia has resumed storing nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil. When the Soviet Union collapsed, those devices were repatriated to Russia.

Earlier this year, he said, there were signs that Moscow's "nuclear protection relationship with Belarus has been reactivated or revised or put back in place."

Maloney said Canadian and allied policy makers need to begin thinking and talking about "what comes next" in eastern Europe, if they aren't already.

They need to have their own plan, he added.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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