Svetlana Tikhanovskaya voting at a polling place in Minsk, Belarus, on August 9 2020. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MISHA FRIEDMAN
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya voting at a polling place in Minsk, Belarus, on August 9 2020. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MISHA FRIEDMAN

Vilnius/Prague/Moscow — Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had won supporters hungry for change in Belarus and seemed ready to take on an authoritarian leader who has ruled the former Soviet state for 26 years.

But as Sunday’s election finished with the declaration of another huge victory for Alexander Lukashenko, the 37-year-old former teacher and mother of two faced a stark choice: stay and fight the disputed ballot or become the latest of the president’s opponents to seek refuge abroad.

As riot police crushed protests across the country, Tikhanovskaya was detained for about seven hours on Monday as she went to submit a formal challenge against the official election results. A day later, she was in neighbouring Lithuania after taking what she called a “difficult decision.” She made the comments in a video posted on YouTube that officials in Baltic state said was filmed under duress while she was in detention.

The outcome took on a familiar pattern in Belarus, a country that Human Rights Watch has castigated for its brutal treatment of opposition activists. With her husband, a political blogger, in jail and her children already dispatched to Lithuania, the stakes were clear. And what also became apparent is that Belarus is suddenly an urgent issue for Europe as calls mount across the continent for renewed sanctions.

The EU is convening an extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers to discuss Belarus on Friday. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said Sunday’s election was “neither free nor fair” and that the crushing of demonstrations was “unacceptable.” Lukashenko took 80% of the votes, according to official results.

A second person died on Wednesday as police clashed with demonstrators in the city of Brest, with the UN condemning the use of violence by the government. The Interior Ministry said officers used live bullets when they came under attack from protesters.

Tikhanovskaya entered the election race in May after her husband, pro-democracy activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, was barred from standing and incarcerated.

Lukashenko said the Belarusian constitution isn’t designed to have a woman run the country and that only people who served in the military could do so. Tikhanovskaya spoke of intimidation such as a phone call in which her children’s lives were threatened.

“She’s recovering after this difficult time,” Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Wednesday. “It’s very important she’s free and she’s united with her children. One choice was to flee the country, and another choice was not good for her.”

Tikhanovskaya joins a lengthening list of Lukashenko opponents now in exile, including Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat who ran for the presidency in 2010. He was jailed for inciting protests against the election result before being released and seeking asylum in the UK. Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of another opposition candidate and a Tikhanovskaya ally, has fled to Russia.

Lithuania, meanwhile, has accepted dozens of opposition activists who left Belarus. It now also is a home to an EU-funded Belarusian university in exile that was shut down by Lukashenko in 2004. The Baltic country, also a former Soviet republic, on Wednesday eased coronavirus-related border controls as it gears up for a potential surge in asylum seekers from Belarus.

Police have cracked down on protesters since Sunday, with at least 6,000 detained during the clashes. Tikhanovskaya’s election allies said they will continue the fight to have the results annulled, but urged supporters and the authorities to use peaceful means.

Lukashenko, 65, has discredited the protests, saying they were being staged by former criminals who are now unemployed.

Tikhanovskaya had galvanised opposition to Lukashenko, notoriously referred to in the US and Western Europe as “Europe’s last dictator,” particularly among women.

Indeed, they remain a visible phalanx in the protests, often dressed in white, marching and forming human chains against violence. More than 600 women of all ages lined down the street near the main Komarovka market in the capital, Minsk, on Wednesday, chanting “we are for peace.” Dressed in white, they waved flowers at nearby cars.

“We are for a peaceful protest,” said Dana, who works in tourism. “We don’t want our men, our boys to be beaten up anymore.”

Ahead of the election, authorities were deliberately targeting women involved in politics or female family members of political activists, Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, said in a report in July.

Before leaving her country, Tikhanovskaya recorded a video in which she called on her fellow citizens to end protests. She was visibly scared and reading from a script. The video was leaked to Belarusian state media.

“God forbid you face the choice that I did, so people, take care of yourselves,” Tikhanovskaya said in the post. “No life is worth what’s happening now. Children are the most important thing in our lives.”

But Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said her comments were the result of coercion. His country, along with Germany, is leading the push for sanctions.

“No sensible person can believe that the statements in the Tikhanovskaya videos were made of free will,” Nauseda said on Facebook. “This is further evidence of the kinds of methods the regime uses to break the people’s and the nation’s spirit.”


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