Belarus opposition candidate flees to Lithuania amid crackdown on election protests

The main opposition candidate in Sunday’s disputed presidential election in Belarus has fled the country after security forces mounted a sweeping crackdown on protests over the result.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who stood in for her husband as an opposition candidate after he was jailed in the run-up to the vote, is now in Lithuania, that country’s foreign affairs minister announced Tuesday. “Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is safe. She is in Lithuania,” Linas Linkevicius tweeted.

Tikhanovskaya fled after publicly rejecting preliminary election results that handed the longtime Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko a landslide victory.

Protests erupted after official exit polls were released late Sunday, granting a sixth term to Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years and earned the nickname “Europe’s last dictator.” Thousands were arrested and the demonstrations resumed on Monday night.

On Monday, Tikhanovskaya “left to an unknown location” after filing a complaint with Belarus’ central elections committee demanding a recount of the votes. After spending several hours at the committee, she came out and told her lawyer that “she made up her mind” and left the building, according to her campaign.

The campaign could not reach her for some time before she got in touch to confirm she was safe.

Ongoing protests

One protester died during clashes in the Belarusian capital Minsk late on Monday, the ministry of internal affairs said in a statement. Novaya Neva reporters on the ground have reported that police threw stun grenades at protesters on Pritytsky street.

“On August 10 at about 23:00, during the riots in Minsk on Pritytsky street, the crowd built barricades to block the traffic.,” the interior ministry said in a statement. “During the confrontation with the special forces, who arrived to unblock the square, one of the protesters tried to throw an unidentified explosive device at the law enforcement officers. It exploded in his hand,” it added, saying that the protestor died of injuries.

Sunday’s clashes led to 3,000 people being detained and dozens injured.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign and independent observers say the vote was marred with widespread ballot stuffing and falsifications. Independent monitoring group “Honest people” said at Tikhanovskaya’s news conference that according to its data she had won in at least 80 polling stations across Belarus.

Lukashenko said Monday that he would not “allow the country to be torn apart,” claiming that the protests were initiated by “foreign puppeteers,” Belta reported.

“So Lukashenko — who is at the top of the vertical of power, the head of the state, voluntarily, with 80% of the votes — must transfer power to them? This is all coming from abroad,” he said.

Tikhanovskaya, a former English tutor, became an unexpected rival to Lukashenko, and the face of the opposition after taking over from her husband, Sergey Tikhanovskiy, a popular YouTube blogger and former candidate who has been jailed since May.

Her campaign rallies saw significant turnouts even in small Belarusian towns not known for their protest activity. About 63,000 people attended the largest event in Minsk in July — making it the biggest demonstration in the past decade.

Tikhanovskaya joined forces with two women who ran other opposition campaigns after their candidates were also either barred from running or jailed. Lukashenko had dismissed them as “poor girls” in his annual state of the union address on Tuesday and said he will not “give the country away.”