Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya says she has fled the country as protests sweep Belarus following the controversial re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
In a short clip on YouTube released Tuesday, Tsikhanouskaya said she had left to reunite with her children, whom she says she moved abroad after receiving anonymous threats during her campaign. She did not specify her whereabouts, but a few hours earlier Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted that Tsikhanouskaya was in Lithuania, which borders Belarus.
“It was a very difficult decision to make for me,” Tsikhanouskaya, 37, said on the verge of tears. “I know many people will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me.”
Later during a press conference, Linkevicius said Tsikhanouskaya was in a safe location in Lithuania together with her children. He didn’t elaborate on whether she was threatened before she left Belarus, but said she experienced “certain pressure” and did not have much choice except to leave the country.
“I think you all understand she is concerned about her children and that’s totally understandable,” Linkevicius told reporters. “But I have no doubt that she also cares about the fate of her country.”
Belarusian officials were not immediately available for comment.
Tsikhanouskaya officially won 10 percent of the vote in the Sunday election, compared to Lukashenko’s landslide 80 percent, but the results were disputed by Belarusian opposition.
She became a surprise opposition star in the months leading up to the election, rallying tens of thousands of supporters, along with two other female opposition figures, in the biggest show of discontent Belarus has seen in a decade. She promised to call a new, fair election if she won.
Tsikhanouskaya entered the race after her husband, a political blogger who had hoped to run for president, was jailed. Her departure is likely to be a bitter pill for her supporters, who have been protesting the results since Sunday.
Maria Kolesnikova, one of Tikhanouskaya’s aides, said in a press conference Tuesday she has had no communication with her since she left the country.
Kolesnikova said she supports Tikhanouskaya and “can’t even imagine” the choice she had to make.
“Svetlana, if you can hear me, I support you. You are a hero,” Kolesnikova said. “You have done a lot for Belarus and Belarusian people.”
Tsikhanouskaya’s other campaign aide, Olga Kovalkova, said at the same briefing that she has not seen Svetlana since she went into the electoral commission office to lodge a formal complaint about election results on Monday.
She said before they parted, Tsikhanouskaya had no intention to leave the country, so they were surprised about her decision.
“I think she made the decision at that moment, and possibly under pressure from Belarusian authorities,” Kovalkova said.
With early exit poll results showing Lukashenko’s big lead Sunday night, thousands of people took to the streets of capital Minsk and several other cities.
Police cracked down on protesters with tear gas and stun grenades amid widespread internet and cell phone outages.
The country’s interior ministry said 89 people were injured during the protests late Sunday and early Monday, including 39 law enforcement officers, and about 3,000 people were detained.
The demonstrations continued Monday night, with police using water cannon and firing rubber bullets to disperse thousands of people in Minsk. Protesters also set up barricades in several areas and threw Molotov cocktails.
One protester has died, the Associated Press reported, citing the interior ministry.
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In a Monday press briefing, Tsikhanouskaya, looking tired and dejected, refused to concede.
“Of course we do not recognize these results,” she told reporters.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko was defiant, calling the opposition “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.
“We will not allow them to tear the country apart,” he said.
The former Soviet collective farm boss has ruled Belarus, a nation of 9.5 million, with an iron fist since 1994.
But long-standing grievances over stagnant economy, human rights and Lukashenko’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic have fueled opposition this year.
The police crackdown on protesters drew harsh criticism from European officials and the U.S. and will likely complicate Lukashenko’s efforts to mend ties with the West amid tensions with Russia, his main ally.
In a statement on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the election was “not free and fair,” condemning the ongoing violence.