KYIV – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who initially refused to accept what she described as a fraudulent result in the controversial elections in Belarus, told supporters on Tuesday that she fled to Lithuania overnight.
In the recent turn of extraordinary events that rocked the country, she urged Belarusians to stop protesting and hinted at the pressures that were forcing them to leave.
Tikhanovskaya appeared exhausted in a tearful video from Lithuania, saying the decision to leave was her own and was made for her children.
“Many will understand, many will judge, some will hate me,” she said. “What is happening now is not even worth a lifetime,” she added, referring to violent clashes between heavily armed riot police and protesters that broke out across the country and escalated into a second night of protests on Monday.
She made it clear that after meeting the Belarusian authorities, she had no choice but to flee to another country. “God forbid you ever have to face the choice I faced,” she said.
The demonstrations turned into a nationwide strike on Tuesday, in which employees of several state-owned companies quit their jobs on Sunday in protest against the brutality of the police and the official declaration by incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko as the election winner. They also called for the release of all demonstrators.
The riot police attacked protesters with rubber bullets, tranquilizers, tear gas, water cannons and batons. Pictures shared on social media showed people with bloody wounds on their heads and torsos. Videos show police using thugs to beat people curled up on the ground. A popular video shows dozens of detainees being forced to lie face down in a detention center surrounded by barbed wire while armed officers stand over them.
Belarusian authorities said they arrested an additional 2,000 people on Monday and early Tuesday morning after detaining more than 3,000 people on the first night of the protests. Police reported Tuesday that a man died overnight after an explosive device exploded in his hand, while independent local media reported that dozens of protesters were badly beaten and wounded in the street and in police custody.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet nation with 9.5 million inhabitants since 1994, called the opposition “sheep” manipulated by Western governments to overthrow him.
He has specifically urged Poland, the UK and the Czech Republic for alleged involvement, but he also suggested that the US might be involved after a US passport holder was arrested. This man, Vitali Shkliarov, worked on Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
The United States, which has worked hard for the last year or more to normalize relations with Belarus, is closely monitoring events in the country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February, and in April President Donald Trump appointed Julie Fisher, currently Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, as the first US ambassador to Belarus since the last expulsion 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: “In order to achieve these goals, the Belarusian government must demonstrate its commitment to democratic processes and respect for human rights through action.”
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters, on behalf of the White House, “Tight restrictions on candidates’ access to ballot papers, the banning of local independent observers at polling stations, the intimidation of opposition candidates and the detention of peaceful protesters and journalists have compromised the process and We are calling on the Belarusians Urges government to respect the right of people to assemble peacefully and not to use force. “
Former Vice President and hopeful Democratic President Joe Biden also weighed in: “I stand by those who demand transparent and accurate vote counting and the release of all political prisoners,” he said. “I also call on President Lukashenko to respect the rights of peaceful demonstrators and to refrain from further violence.”
Tikhanovskaya’s video met with relief but also confusion among supporters, who held their breath as they waited for news of her whereabouts after visiting the Central Election Commission (CEC) after she disappeared Monday.
She went there to file an official complaint about the election results. According to the KEK, Lukashenko received 80.08% of the vote and Tikhanovskaya only 10.09% on Sunday. Independent election observers were banned from observing the elections, but the Tikhanovskaya camp mobilized its own observers to monitor the constituencies. Together with journalists from independent media, they reported massive election fraud.
She stayed in the building for several hours. When she finally showed up, her campaign said it had told them she had “made a decision” before being left alone in a car.
The next time someone heard of Tikhanovskaya was when the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius tweeted on Tuesday morning that she was “safe” but was arrested by the Belarusian authorities, detained for seven hours in the KEK without contact with the outside world and then drove to Lithuania. A source aware of her travels, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told BuzzFeed News that she crossed the border at 3:30 a.m. local time and was supported by the Lithuanian authorities.
Three hours after Linkevičius’ tweet, Tikhanovskaya posted the first of two videos. In the one from Lithuania, she suggested that she had been given an ultimatum by the Belarusian authorities who are currently holding her husband, popular vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky. He had announced his candidacy for president before being arrested and jailed in May.
In a second video released by Belarusian state media on Tuesday afternoon, a desperate Tikhanovskaya read about a piece of paper in the CEC.
“Belarusians, I urge you to show common sense and respect the law,” she said in the video, without looking at the camera. “I don’t want any blood or violence. I ask you not to face the police or to step into squares to endanger your life. Take care of yourself and your relatives. “
A Tikhanovskaya campaign official told BuzzFeed News that the candidate had been pressured by the government to film the video and leave the country to release her campaign manager Maria Moroz, who had been held by police since Saturday. Moroz is now also in Lithuania, says the employee.
Later on Tuesday, the campaign released a statement to local media tracing Tikhanovskaya’s words. “We support everyone who peacefully protest against election fraud. We are against violence and call on the authorities not to use force against civilians. … We propose a dialogue on the peaceful transfer of power to the people. “
Meanwhile, on the streets of Minsk and other cities across the country, after a violent night in which riot police again used rubber bullets and tranquilizers against protesters, and some protesters fired fireworks and hurled Molotov cocktails at police ranks, many thousands of protesters continued to gather and their anger about expressing what they call a stolen election.
Peaceful strikes were held at state-owned companies across the city to shut down economies and pressurize the government. Solo picket lines were also reported, where a man even jumped in front of a train in the Minsk metro to raise a sign saying to the police, “Stop mutilating and killing people!”
Veronika Tsepkalo, who was part of the trio of women who campaigned for the eviction of Lukashenko along with Tikhanovskaya, told BuzzFeed News from Moscow that she also fled Belarus late Monday evening after she “received information that I was would also be imprisoned. “She had returned to Belarus from Russia on Sunday, where her husband, a former presidential candidate, also fled with the couple’s two children last month.
When asked what will happen to the opposition movement that inspired her, alongside Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova, the third and only member of the trio staying in Minsk, Tsepkalo said: “People should fight for their rights.”
On Tuesday evening, many Belarusians seemed to be doing just that. When dusk fell over Minsk, thousands of them again poured out onto the streets.
Hundreds of heavily armed riot police, special forces and military vehicles followed closely behind.