Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya forced to leave Belarus as protests go into their third day

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya forced to leave Belarus as protests go into their third day
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya forced to leave Belarus as protests go into their third day
By Ben Aris in Berlin August 12, 2020

The nominal victor in the Belarus presidential election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to flee the country in the evening of August 10 after authorities detained some of her colleagues and threatened the rest. She released a video calling on Belarusians to accept the official results of the election where incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko won over 80% of the vote and stop the nationwide protests, which have gone into their third day in the face of escalating police brutality.

“I, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, thank you for your participation in the presidential election. The people of Belarus have made their choice. It is with gratitude and warmth that I appeal to all the citizens who supported me all this time. Belarusians! I call on you to exercise your better judgment and respect the law. I don’t want bloodshed or violence. I ask you not to confront the police or go out into the public squares, so as not to endanger your lives. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones,” said Tikhanovskaya on the clip.

Tikhanovskaya disappeared for several hours on August 11 and no one knew where she was, leading to speculation that she had been arrested. Then late afternoon her team cryptically tweeted a short message that she had been found and “She is fine.”

The details of what happened in those hours remain unclear, but by the next morning in a shock announcement Tikhanovskaya announced she was in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and offered a tearful message calling on the people of Belarus to understand her difficult decisions. She went on to say it was a personal decision: “My children are very important to me.”

The Lithuanian government has given her a one-year visa and welcomed her. Lithuania together with Poland were the first EU governments to condemn the violence in Belarus and called on Lukashenko to respect the people’s right to protest.

However, it soon emerged that she made another video, which has been released in the last hours (above) where she climbs down, calls on the people to accept Lukashenko's victory in the elections and to end the protests.

Based on reports, it appears that she was coerced into making this video and fleeing the country after the authorities detained some of her co-campaigners and threatened her friends. Her husband Sergei also remains in prison, where he faces charges of instigating unrest and has been linked to the 33 Russian mercenaries who were arrested last week.

“Tikhanovskaya was removed from Belarus by authorities – she did *not* flee. Aide Olga Kovolkova: “Svetlana didn't have a choice. The important thing is she is free and alive. She left together with [staff member] Maria Moroz. But part of her team is still being held hostage," tweeted Oliver Carroll, the Independent’s correspondent in Moscow, citing the telegram channel TUT.by. “Tikhanovskaya was asked to leave in exchange for securing the release of Moroz. But still some details unclear.” Moroz was one of Tikhanovskaya’s campaign team that was detained on the eve of the presidential elections on August 9.

“Svetlana had no choice. It is important that she is free and alive. They left with Maria Moroz. However, part of Svetlana's team continues to be held hostage,” Tikhanovskaya's friend and fellow campaigner Olga Kovalkova said on Telegram. “We now have two tasks: to protect our choice and stop the bloodshed. Now the situation is critical, no matter how difficult it is for all of us, we need to renounce violence, we must defend our victory in legal, non-violent ways. We call on all democratic forces and supporters of change to unite, today we will hold emergency consultations and agree on joint actions.” Both of the other three women team that campaigned against Lukashenko were on the airwaves in the last 24 hours.

It appears that the video was filmed in the office of the head of the Central Election Commission (CEC) Lidia Yermoshina, where Tikhanovskaya had gone on August 10 to file a formal complaint of vote-rigging in the elections. From what can be gleaned from the various reports, the authorities appeared to have corned her in Yermoshina’s office for several hours and threatened her until she capitulated and agreed to leave the country and support the official election results, where Lukashenko won over 80% of the vote.

The head of the Belarusian Central Election Commission (CEC) Lidia Yermoshina, who masterminded the mass election fraud in the presidential elections on behalf of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

Now two of the three women that stood against Lukashenko are in exile. Tikhanovskaya joined forces with Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of Valery Tsepkalo who was barred from the race and fled the country with their children, and Maria Kolesnikova, who ran the campaign of ex-banker Viktor Babariko, who was jailed on money-laundering charges.

Tsepkalo also left the country the day after the elections to join her husband and children in Moscow and also released a video on August 11 calling on the world to come to the aid of the Belarusian people.

"I appeal to the international community. Please help stop the mayhem in Belarus. Help stop the bloodshed. Recognise Svetlana as the only legally elected President. Help release political prisoners and hold free elections. Please help the Belarusian people. Thank you," Tsepkalo said in her statement.

Christopher Miller, a reporter based in Ukraine, who talked to Tsepkalo by phone, confirmed she was threatened with detention and was forced to leave Belarus. "Asked if they'll continue to lead opposition movement and what happens now they've fled, Tsepkalo said: "People should fight for their rights"," Miller reported.

Kolesnikova is now the only one of the trio left in Belarus and recorded a video where she called out Lukashenko's election fraud and ask him to surrender his office.

Kolesnikova appealed to the Belarusian authorities to stop the violence and “see the will of the people… The protesters won't disappear. They can't forget what's happened. You can't make them. They want change,” she said in a video posted on social media.

"Maria Kolesnikova, the last from the female trio who has remained in Belarus, speaks to Lukashenko and requests his surrender. Very calm, very serious, very powerful. So the REAL power looks like. Like a school headmistress talks to a first-grader," tweeted Sergej Summlenny, a Belarus and head of the Heinrich-Boell Foundation.

Protests smaller, but police more vicious

Violence broke out on August 11 as the official start to the third night of protests began at 7pm. Clashes between protestors and riot police in the regional city of Brest broke out almost immediately, although some caution must be exercised, as there were also reports of provocateurs in play, used by the police as an excuse for heavy-handed crackdowns. 

In Brest crowds attacked the outnumbered security troops, kicking and punching them almost as soon as the demonstrations were supposed to get under way. Reports of clashes in other regional cities trickled in but communications were poor after the telecoms operator Beltelecom admitted it was shutting down much of the telecoms network.

Tadeusz Giczan tweeted, a Belarusian PhD candidate at University College London School of Slavonic & East European Studies and bne IntelliNews contributor, reports that he managed to call his mother in Minsk after three days of trying. “They know what is going on,” he said, “but they have none of the details.”

In Minsk large crowds formed again across the city, but the mood was more subdued and many locked themselves in their apartments and took to shouting abuse at police from their balconies. The police responded by firing rubber bullets at them and in some cases ripping the doors off their hinges and arresting the protestors.

“The scale of protest in Belarus is smaller today than in the past two days. A de facto curfew is introduced in the centres of all the major cities. In Minsk there are 3 opposition areas on the outskirts atm. Almost no reports from the regions due to lack of internet,” Giczan tweeted.

In another new development the police started taking action against cars honking their horns – a sign of solidarity with the opposition. Police stopped drivers, dragged them out of their cars and brutally beat them. Alternatively the police would hit cars with their batons, rock them and shoot at the windows with rubber bullets.

Separately there were reports that journalists have been targeted. Police have been confiscating photographers’ memory cards and smashing the display screens of their cameras. Dozens of journalists have been beaten and several have been arrested, while a few have simply disappeared.

General strike and small rebellions  

August 11 also saw the start of a general strike and employees at several large state-owned enterprises put down their tools, only to be arrested and taken away by police. 70 engineers from the famous Minsk tractor factory took part in strike, which puts their jobs in jeopardy. They joined workers at Kozlov electrics factory, the Zhabinka sugar factory, the Belarus Automotive factory, the New Materials Institute, the National Grid company, the 4th Trolleybus Park and others.

Given the Belarusian economy is already in crisis, a nationwide general strike would be debilitating and rapidly increase the pressure on Lukashenko, but the authorities were treating strikers like protestors and simply arresting them.

The authorities have been doing everything in their power to disrupt and prevent what have been the biggest protests the country has seen since independence in 1991.

“It is clear now that Lukashenko no longer has popular support. He only remains in power with the help of the security forces. This situation can't last long. He would either have to put tens of thousands of people in jail or to make curfew permanent – both options unrealistic,” Giczan added.

What has been remarkable about the Minsk protests is how quickly they became violent. Belarusians have taken to calling the riot police "karateli" (punishers), one of the names applied to the Nazi SS teams who burnt villages down containing their inhabitants during the country’s occupation in WWII. For their part the OMON troops have call the protestors “mraz” (scum).

Even with the opposition movement decapitated the protests will continue. Tikhanovskaya herself said she is less of a leader and more of a symbol for the rest of the country. She and her whole team have called for non-violent protesting.

And there are continuous reports of small rebellions that follow in the example of the poll commissioners that defied the powers that be and published the real results of the poll. Members of the police and military have been resigning rather than fight their own countrymen. In one of the more high-profile defections, the anchor of news programme on Belarusian state TV, Siarhei Kazlovich, resigned in protest against police brutality towards peaceful protesters.