“God Forbid You Ever Have To Face The Choice That I Faced." Belarus's Opposition Candidate Has Fled The Country As The Government Cracks Down.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the former English teacher who presented the biggest challenge to Alexander Lukashenko in 26 years, disappeared overnight as violent protests gripped Minsk.
KYIV — Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who first refused to accept what she called a fraudulent result in Belarus’s disputed election, told supporters on Tuesday that she had fled overnight to Lithuania.
In the latest turn of extraordinary events rocking the country, she urged Belarusians to stop protesting and hinted at the pressures that forced her to leave.
Appearing exhausted in a tearful video from Lithuania, Tikhanovskaya said the decision to leave was her own and was made for the sake of her children.
“Many will understand me, many will judge, some will hate me,” she said. “What is happening now is not worth even one life,” she added, referring to violent clashes between heavily armed riot police and demonstrators that have erupted across the country and escalated during a second night of protests on Monday.
She made it clear that after meeting with Belarusian authorities she felt she had no other options but to flee to another country. “God forbid you ever have to face the choice that I faced,” she said.
Demonstrations evolved into a nationwide strike Tuesday, with workers at several state enterprises walking off the job to protest police brutality and the official declaration of incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko as the winner in Sunday’s election. They also demanded the release of all protesters.
Riot police have attacked demonstrators with rubber bullets, stun grenades, tear gas, water cannons, and batons. Images shared on social media have shown people with bloody wounds on their heads and torsos. Videos show police using clubs to beat people curled up on the ground. One video that was circulated widely shows dozens of detainees being forced to lie facedown on the grounds of a detention center surrounded by razor wire as armed officers stand over them.
Belarusian authorities said they detained another 2,000 people on Monday and early Tuesday morning after taking more than 3,000 into custody on the first night of protests. Police reported Tuesday that one man died overnight after an explosive device detonated in his hand, while independent local media reported dozens of protesters had been badly beaten and wounded on the streets and in police custody.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet nation of 9.5 million people since 1994, called the opposition “sheep” being manipulated by Western governments in order to overthrow him.
He has specifically called out Poland, the UK, and the Czech Republic for alleged involvement, but he also suggested that the US may be involved after the detention of a US diplomatic passport holder. That man, Vitali Shkliarov, worked on the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders and the 2012 reelection campaign of President Barack Obama.
The United States, which has worked hard to normalize relations with Belarus over the past year or more, is keeping a close eye on the events in the country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February, and in April, President Donald Trump nominated Julie Fisher, currently a deputy assistant secretary of state, to be the US’s first ambassador to Belarus since the last one was expelled in 2008. Minsk has also nominated an ambassador to Washington.
On Monday, Pompeo said in a statement that the US supports the “aspirations of the Belarusian people for a democratic, prosperous future.”
He said: “To achieve these goals, the Government of Belarus must prove through action its commitment to democratic processes and respect for human rights.”
Speaking on behalf of the White House, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters, “Severe restrictions on ballot access for candidates, prohibition of local independent observers at polling stations, intimidation of opposition candidates and the detention of peaceful protesters and journalists have marred the process and we urge the Belarusian government to respect the right of people to peaceably assemble and to refrain from the use of force.”
Former vice president and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden also weighed in. “I stand with those who are calling for a transparent and accurate vote count and the release of all political prisoners,” he said. “I also call on President Lukashenko to respect the rights of peaceful protestors and to refrain from further violence.”
Tikhanovskaya’s video was met with relief but also confusion from supporters who held their collective breath as they awaited news of her whereabouts after she disappeared on Monday, following a visit to the Central Election Commission (CEC).
She had gone there to file an official complaint about the election results. According to the CEC, Lukashenko won 80.08% of the vote on Sunday and Tikhanovskaya garnered just 10.09%. Independent election monitors were banned from observing the polls, but Tikhanovskaya’s camp mobilized its own observers to monitor voting precincts. They, along with journalists from independent media outlets, reported witnessing vote-rigging on a massive scale.
She remained inside the building for several hours. When she finally emerged, her campaign said she told them that she had “made a decision” before she left alone in a car.
The next time anyone heard about Tikhanovskaya was when Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, tweeted on Tuesday morning that she was “safe” but had been detained by Belarusian authorities, held incommunicado for seven hours at the CEC, and then driven to Lithuania. A source with knowledge of her travels who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter told BuzzFeed News she crossed the border at 3:30 a.m. local time and was aided by Lithuanian authorities.
Three hours after Linkevičius’s tweet, Tikhanovskaya released what would be the first of two videos. In the one from Lithuania, she suggested she had been given an ultimatum by Belarusian authorities, who are currently holding her husband, the popular vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky. He had announced his candidacy for president before he was detained and jailed in May.
In a second video, released by Belarusian state media Tuesday afternoon, a distressed Tikhanovskaya read from a piece of paper inside the CEC.
“Belarusians, I’m urging you to show common sense and respect for the law,” she said in the video, without raising her eyes to the camera. “I don’t want blood and violence. I’m asking you not to confront the police and not take to squares to put your lives in danger. Take care of yourselves and your relatives.”
A Tikhanovskaya campaign staffer told BuzzFeed News that the candidate had been pressured by the government to make the video and to leave the country in exchange for the release of her campaign manager, Maria Moroz, who had been held by police since Saturday. Moroz is now also in Lithuania, according to the staffer.
Later on Tuesday, the campaign released a statement to local media walking back Tikhanovskaya’s words. “We support all who peacefully protest against election fraud. We are against violence and ask authorities not to use violence against civilians. … We propose a dialogue about the peaceful transfer of power to the people.”
Meanwhile, on the streets of Minsk and other cities across the country after a violent night that saw riot police once again use rubber bullets and stun grenades against demonstrators, and some protesters shoot fireworks and hurl Molotov cocktails toward police ranks, many thousands of protesters continued to assemble and to express their anger over what they decry as a stolen election.
Peaceful walkouts were underway at state enterprises across the city in an attempt to shut down the economy and pressure the government. Solo pickets were also reported, with one man even jumping in front of a train in the Minsk metro to raise a sign adorned with a demand for police to “stop maiming and killing people!”
Veronika Tsepkalo, who along with Tikhanovskaya was part of the all-women trio campaigning to oust Lukashenko, told BuzzFeed News from Moscow that she had also fled Belarus late on Monday evening after she “received info that I was going to be detained, as well.” She had returned to Belarus on Sunday from Russia, where her husband, a former presidential candidate, had also fled last month with the couple’s two children.
Asked what will happen to the opposition movement she inspired alongside Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova, the third and only member of the trio who remains in Minsk, Tsepkalo said, “People should fight for their rights.”
On Tuesday evening, many Belarusians seemed to be doing just that. As dusk descended on Minsk, thousands of them once again poured into the streets.
Following close behind were hundreds of heavily armed riot police, special forces, and military vehicles.