MOSCOW—A day after declaring victory in a presidential election in Belarus, leading opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled the country for Lithuania and released two video messages to her supporters under apparent duress.
On Monday, the 37-year-old Tikhonovskaya—who had refused to concede victory to President Alexander Lukashenko in what critics called a rigged election in his favor—disappeared for several hours inside the building of the official central election commission, where she filmed the videos calling for protesters to stop contesting the results. She said she was a “weak woman,” and hinted at an ultimatum, adding, “Many will judge me now and some will hate me—God forbids you ever face the choice I had to make. Not a single life is worth what is happening now; children are the main thing we have in life.”
After Sunday’s election, the Belarusian Central Election commission declared the preliminary results in favor of the longtime leader, Lukashenko, with 80.2 percent for him and 9.9 percent for Tikhanovskaya, despite widespread opposition to his rule. Also on Sunday, the country’s internet went down as Lukashenko declared victory.
Protesters flooded the center of the capital, Minsk, in support of Tikhanovskaya. Police and soldiers, armed with submachine guns, brutally cracked down on the opposition with rubber bullets. One person died in an explosion on Pritytskogo Street. People brought flowers to the place of his death on Tuesday.
“I tried to help put a wounded person into an ambulance, when OMON [police special forces] hit me with a club on the head,” Roman, a severely injured young protester, remembered Monday night.
More than 3,000 protesters were detained on Sunday and Monday, with dozens suffering severe injuries. “I can hear constant blasts of stun grenades all over the city center. The majority of protesters look very young, 18- to 25-year olds; police grab them, drag them out of the crowd, they especially target people wrapped in national flags or those wearing T-shirts with opposition slogans,” Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, told The Daily Beast. “Our iPhones are useless, we cannot use social media, cannot open any websites; there are no vehicles in the streets, only police trucks and buses,” Lokshina said, describing the scene to The Daily Beast in a phone interview.
Police also appeared to deliberately target groups of journalists wearing PRESS vests. A local reporter, Natallya Lubneuskaya, got shot with an unknown munition at the protests and an ambulance took her away. She could not feel her leg, her editor at Nasha Niva, the Belarusian major newspaper, reported.
By Tuesday, at least four major factories also went on strike to protest violence and rigged elections. Protests also took place in towns and villages outside of the capital, with people chanting, “Tikhanovskaya is our president, our symbol!”
Belarusian independent media portal tut.by reports that Tikhonovskaya agreed to leave the country in exchange for the freedom of Maria Moroz, her campaign manager. Moroz had been previously arrested on Election Day, on Sunday. “It was typical for Belarusian KGB to threaten Lukashenko’s major opponent with prison, her son’s or her husband’s death—he had put all his key competitors in prison for decades,” Pavel Marinich, an exiled Belarusian politician based in Lithuania, told The Daily Beast.
He knew too well what he was talking about. Pavel’s father, former presidential candidate Mikhail Marinich, spent three and a half years in prison, where he suffered a cerebral stroke. “Now we’ll have an elected president in exile just like in Venezuela. Right now, our newly elected Mrs. President Tikhanovskaya is asleep, she is tired; as soon as she wakes up, she will pronounce the new presidential administration and government,” Marinich added.
The situation in Belarus remains volatile. An IT expert, Kirill Golub, who has supported the opposition, went missing late on Monday night, his wife told Belsat news agency. “Every day at around 6 or 7 p.m. people come out to declare their votes have been stolen, for that they get shot, blown up—OMON has never in Belarusian history fired at people in the past,” Andrei Lyankevich, a Belarusian photographer and teacher, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview from Minsk.
Young Belarusian protesters with bleeding faces, maimed and wounded, gave interviews and filmed each other on smart phones and posted on VPNs, which in spite of all efforts by Belarusian internet censors continued to work. Left without their leaders, the civil society demonstrated a remarkable ability for self-organization.
Images of wounded, unconscious protesters leaked out through VPN and messenger apps, fueling public anger. “Tikhanovskaya is our symbol, we thank her for the campaign, but we realize Lukashenko keeps her husband a prisoner, a hostage,” Belarusian observer Irina Khalip told The Daily Beast. “People will continue coming to the streets and squares without her. The protest movement will continue without her and strikes, as a new form of protest, will be even more effective.”
While European politicians discussed the return of economic sanctions on Belarus, which were lifted in 2016, leaders of Russia and China congratulated Lukashenko with victory. Russian officials often praise Belarus for being a comfortable buffer zone against NATO, a Russian-speaking ally, a transit territory for Russian goods. But even Russian politicians seemed shocked to see the chaos and violence in Belarus. “Belarus is ready to end Lukashenko’s regime, people are tired of you, Alexander Grigoryevich, leave,” Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russian parliament’s deputy speaker, said on Monday. “It is better for us to have an open enemy than a pretending friend.”