World

Belarus Election: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya Flees Country Amid Protests

MINSK, Belarus — The main opponent of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the embattled president of Belarus, left the country on Tuesday, and violent skirmishes between the police and protesters continued as the man known as “Europe’s last dictator” clung to power.

Svetlana G. Tikhanovskaya, who ran for president in Sunday’s election after the jailing of her husband, an opposition blogger, was pressured to depart for Lithuania by the Belarusian authorities, two of her associates said.

In a video released Tuesday that she appeared to have recorded under duress, Ms. Tikhanovskaya read from a prepared text calling on Belarusians not to resist the police or to protest in public squares in order “not to put your lives at risk.”

“I made this decision absolutely independently,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said in another cryptic video message on Tuesday. “I know that many will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me for it. But know that God forbid you will face the kind of choice that I faced.”

Many Belarusians who have been protesting against Mr. Lukashenko, the authoritarian who has ruled the Eastern European country for 26 years, did not heed her call for calm.

Protests erupted after polls closed in the country’s presidential election, in which Mr. Lukashenko claimed victory in a landslide, and have turned into the biggest antigovernment demonstrations in the country’s post-Soviet history. Critics believe that Sunday’s vote was blatantly rigged.

ImageProtesters in Minsk on Monday.
Protesters in Minsk on Monday.Credit…Sergei Grits/Associated Press

Still, there were signs on Tuesday that the protests were losing momentum in the face of a fierce police response. Social media accounts backing the protests had urged a general strike on Tuesday, but while some work stoppages were reported, they were not widespread.

Clashes between protesters and the police continued for a third consecutive evening, though there were fewer people in the streets than during the previous nights. The demonstrators who remained appeared increasingly prepared for violent confrontation.

With much of the city center cordoned off — and with internet access limited, making it difficult to organize protests — the focal points of the demonstrations moved to residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of Minsk, the capital.

Groups of young men, their faces covered with masks, could be seen marching in working-class neighborhoods toward the city center. They set off fireworks and chanted a popular slogan of recent days: “We believe, we can, we will win!”

Mr. Lukashenko’s odds of remaining in power appear wedded to the loyalty of the security forces at his command. For now, the authorities’ tactics have been aggressive: Elite police units have combed residential neighborhoods, entering apartment buildings and detaining people. Journalists continued to be targeted, and several photographers had their memory cards confiscated.

“They have been completely brainwashed — they are like zombies,” said Sergei Aksimovich, 36, a construction engineer, referring to the police. “They say people were paid to protest.”

The Belarus authorities said on Tuesday that 2,000 people had been detained across the country the previous night, and that 21 law-enforcement and military personnel had been injured. One person died in those clashes after an explosive device detonated in his hand, officials said.

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Riot police on duty in Minsk on Tuesday.Credit…Sergei Gapon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A protest site in central Minsk turned into a makeshift memorial on Tuesday, with hundreds of people bringing flowers, and passing cars honking in support. Riot police were deployed to the scene.

“I will come out to protest until the end,” said Yelena Kolomytskaya, 47, who works in sales and brought flowers.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya, a former English teacher, emerged as the face of the campaign against Mr. Lukashenko in recent weeks, with established opposition figures, including her husband, in jail or in exile. The Belarusian authorities allowed her name to appear on the presidential election ballot, and the campaigns of two other challengers — Viktor D. Babariko, a jailed ex-banker, and Valery V. Tsepkalo, who fled the country — endorsed her.

She traveled the country holding campaign rallies, exhorting Belarusians tired of years of economic stagnation and political repression under Mr. Lukashenko to call for change. The official results gave her just 10 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, compared with 80 percent for Mr. Lukashenko, but the results were denounced as fraudulent by both the opposition and international governments.

On Monday, Ms. Tikhanovskaya visited the Central Election Commission headquarters in Minsk to officially contest the vote count. She was left in a room for three hours with two senior security service officials, according to Maria Kolesnikova, a supporter of Ms. Tikhanovskaya who said she accompanied her and waited outside the room during that meeting.

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A memorial in Minsk on Tuesday for a protester who had died overnight.Credit…Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA, via Shutterstock

About an hour into the meeting, Ms. Kolesnikova said she saw several people with black bags containing what looked like video equipment enter the room. After another two hours, Ms. Kolesnikova was told that Ms. Tikhanovskaya had departed through another entrance.

She said she has not heard from Ms. Tikhanovskaya since, but added that it was clear that the candidate had recorded her video and left the country under pressure, with her husband, her friends and her supporters in custody.

“When all those around you and your family are hostages, it is very difficult not to make statements under pressure,” Ms. Kolesnikova told reporters in Minsk on Tuesday.

Linas Linkevicius, the Lithuanian foreign minister, said in a news conference that Ms. Tikhanovskaya was in his country and was together with her children.

“We found out that she experienced certain pressure and did not have much choice except to leave the country,” Mr. Linkevicius said.

In her video messages released Tuesday, Ms. Tikhanovskaya did not provide details about why she decided to leave Belarus or what sort of choice she faced. But she hinted that she had departed for the sake of her children.

“Not a single life is worth what is happening now,” she said. “Children are the most important thing we have in life.”

Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Minsk, Belarus, and Anton Troianovski from Moscow. Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels.