The top opposition candidate in the Belarus presidential vote who refused to concede her defeat has fled the country amid a massive police crackdown on protests, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister says.
- Ms Tsikhanouskaya has urged people to take care as she explained her decision to leave
- Both she and Belarusian authorities said she had not been forced from the country
- Ms Tsikhanouskaya said she had official information showing she had won more votes than other candidates
Linas Linkevicius said on Twitter that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is now “safe” in Lithuania.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya had previously dismissed the official results of Sunday’s election showing authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko had won a sixth term by a landslide.
Election officials said Mr Lukashenko had won with 80 per cent of the vote, while Ms Tsikhanouskaya got 10 per cent.
When asked on Monday if she was planning to go abroad to avoid being arrested, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said she had no such plan and saw no reason why she would be arrested.
But after submitting her formal demand for a recount to the Central Election Commission, she told her allies: “I have made a decision, I must be with my children.”
She had previously sent her children to an unspecified European country after receiving threats.
“You know, I thought that this whole campaign really had hardened me and given me so much strength that I could handle anything,” she said, explaining her decision in a sombre video released on her husband’s YouTube channel.
“And I know that many people will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me. But, you know, God forbid being faced with such a choice that I was faced with.
“So, people, take care please — no life is worth what is happening now. Children are the most important thing in our lives.”
Both she and the Belarusian authorities said she had not been forced to leave.
Political novice propelled into race
Ms Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher without any prior political experience, entered the race after her husband, an opposition blogger who had hoped to run for president, was arrested in May.
Police said they found a large stash of unexplained money hidden in their sofa.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya said she knew nothing about the cash and that the charges were trumped-up.
She managed to unite fractured opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies — the largest opposition demonstrations in Belarus since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
“We don’t agree with [the election results], we have absolutely opposite information,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said.
“We have official protocols from many poll stations, where the number of votes in my favour are many more times than for another candidate.”
Economic damage caused by the coronavirus and Mr Lukashenko’s swaggering response to the pandemic, which he airily dismissed as “psychosis”, has fuelled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks.
Mr Lukashenko is a former collective farm boss who has led the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994.
He has vowed to continue targeting protesters and has derided the Opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.
Scores of violent teens confront police
Thousands of opposition supporters who had also protested against the results met with a tough police crackdown in Minsk and several other Belarusian cities for two straight nights.
On Monday, a protester died amid the clashes in Minsk and scores were injured as police used tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators.
A government spokesman said the victim had intended to throw an explosive device, but it blew up in his hand and killed him.
The post-election protest, in which young demonstrators — many of them teenagers — confronted police, marked a previously unseen level of violence.
Rumours that Ms Tsikhanouskaya had left the country began circulating among the protesters as they confronted police overnight, but the news didn’t discourage them from continuing their resistance.
“She had a clear choice — to be in a Belarusian jail or to remain free in Lithuania,” said 21-year-old protester Kirill Kulevich.
“Tsikhanouskaya has called herself a symbol of change, but they are forcing us to continue living as before.”
Scores were detained as police relentlessly dispersed scattered groups of protesters in Minsk overnight.
The police crackdown on protesters drew harsh criticism from the European Union and the United States and will likely complicate Mr Lukashenko’s efforts to mend ties with the West amid tensions with his main ally and sponsor, Russia.