Belarusan opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya announced on Tuesday she fled the country for Lithuania, where her children were already waiting.
Belarus has been gripped by protests and violent clashes against the police after five-term incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory for a sixth term in what critics denounce as a rigged election.
Tikhanouskaya is an outsider candidate in the mold of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky. She followed a political trajectory similar to the character Zelensky played in a Ukrainian TV series before he became president: she is a young former English teacher and full-time mom who entered presidential politics rather abruptly, in her case because her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a YouTube personality and presumptive opposition candidate for president, was thrown in jail on charges of colluding with foreign saboteurs before he could file his candidacy.
The electoral commission allowed Tikhanouskaya to take her husband’s place on the ballot despite her lack of political experience. She said she was threatened from the first day of her unlikely candidacy, so she sent her ten-year-old son and five-year-old daughter to live in Lithuania – a decision she described as particularly difficult because her son is hearing-impaired.
Tikhanouskaya proved to be a surprisingly effective campaigner, winning comparisons to Joan of Arc from opposition media that was originally skeptical about her chances against Lukashenko. Her campaign rallies became the largest opposition gatherings in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union. Her surging popularity added to the opposition’s outrage when Lukashenko claimed he won re-election with over 80 percent of the vote.
International observers have deemed none of Lukashenko’s election victories “free and fair” and this one drew complaints of especially egregious ballot-box stuffing. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is “deeply concerned about the conduct of the August 9 presidential election in Belarus, which was not free and fair.”
“Severe restrictions on ballot access for candidates, prohibition of local independent observers at polling stations, intimidation tactics employed against opposition candidates, and the detentions of peaceful protesters and journalists marred the process,” Pompeo said.
Germany and the United Kingdom also condemned the election and the force subsequently deployed against protesters.
The world’s worst dictators quickly rallied behind Lukashenko, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping. Putin and Lukashenko have quarreled in the recent past, but Russia and China have big money invested in his regime, Russia feels it needs Belarus in its orbit for security reasons, and Putin and Xi both have a personal interest in legitimizing the concept of “democratically elected” dictators-for-life.
Tikhanouskaya refused to concede defeat as protests broke out across the country.
“I will believe with my own eyes – the majority was for us,” she said on Sunday.
Later she said her campaign had “absolutely opposite information” about the true outcome of the vote.
“We have official protocols from many poll stations, where the number of votes in my favor are many more times than for another candidate,” she claimed.
On Monday, she insisted she would not flee the country and did not fear being arrested by state security forces, but she changed her mind on Tuesday after a night of violent clashes between police and protesters with at least one fatality.
“I have made a decision. I must be with my children,” she announced after filing a formal demand for a recount with the election commission.
On Tuesday, Tikhanouskaya posted a YouTube video explaining her decision to supporters. She was deeply apologetic for leaving the country, clarifying that she was not forced to leave by the authorities, but thought it was best for her family. She departed so abruptly that her supporters grew apprehensive after her campaign staff said they couldn’t reach her on the phone.
“You know, I thought that this whole campaign really had hardened me and given me so much strength that I could handle anything – but, probably, I’m still the weak woman I was in the first place. I have made a very difficult decision for myself,” she said.
“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,” she said.
“So, people, take care please – no life is worth what is happening now. Children are the most important thing in our lives,” she concluded.
Lukashenko, whose claim of an 80 percent landslide victory is very difficult to square with public dismay over a slumping economy and absolute outrage at his brusque dismissal of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic as a mass “psychosis” – right up until he personally contracted it – vowed to crush the protests. He dismissed the demonstrations against him as a foreign plot to undermine his 26 years of authoritarian rule, a narrative supported by his Russian allies.
“We will not allow the country to be torn apart. As I have warned, there will be no Maidan, no matter how much anyone wants one. People need to quiet down and calm down,” Lukashenko said on Monday, referring to the demonstrations in Kyiv in 2014 that brought down the Ukrainian government.
The opposition struggled past Lukashenko’s Internet shutdown to declare on the encrypted messaging site Telegram that “the dictator has started a war” and call for a general strike.