(CN) — The main opposition candidate in Belarus’ presidential election left the country Tuesday as demonstrators protested for a third night against the results of what was widely viewed as a rigged election.
Months of protests, dubbed the “Slipper Revolution,” against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have exploded after the Belarusian state declared a landslide victory on Sunday for Lukashenko, who many call Europe’s last authoritarian strongman.
Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya went into hiding the night before the election after two staff members were arrested. After the official results gave her only about 7% of the vote, and she publicly disputed them, she fled to Lithuania. In a video Tuesday, she said that it was her choice to leave Belarus for the sake of her children.
“It was a very hard decision to make,” Tsikhanouskaya said, according to the Associated Press. “I know that many of you will understand me, many others will condemn me and some will even hate me. But God forbid you ever face the choice that I faced.”
In another video released shortly after the first by state media, in which she appeared to be reading from a prepared statement, Tsikhanouskaya urged her supporters to stop protesting.
“The people of Belarus have made their choice,” she said.
Her campaign said her actions were made under duress and put out a statement urging authorities to work with protesters toward a “peaceful transition of power.”
In the run-up to the election, opposition figures were jailed or fled Belarus for fear of arrest. On Sunday, when election results were announced giving Lukashenko about 80% of the vote, the Belarusian state was accused of fixing the vote count. Europe’s election monitoring body, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, called into question the results.
Lukashenko has won every election since 1994 in landslides, making him Europe’s longest serving head of state. Under his regime, he has consolidated power and made Belarus a police state and dictatorship, his critics contend.
Since Sunday, more than 3,000 people have been detained after two nights of protests in the capital Minsk and other cities and towns. The demonstrations have turned violent with police, soldiers and interior ministry agents using stun grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas to carry out Lukashenko’s order to squash the opposition. At least two demonstrators reportedly have died in the protests which have seen tens of thousands of people pour onto the streets.
Rik Daems, the president of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, a legal body connected to the European Court of Human Rights, said the election was “far from being free and fair.”
He denounced the arrests of journalists, activists, protesters and candidates before the election and urged Belarus to adopt democratic principles. Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe because of its lack of democratic progress.
Tensions in Belarus have been rising for months as opposition forces became emboldened and outrage against Lukashenko grew. Large protests broke out across the country with demonstrators chanting, “Stop the cockroach!”, a reference to a poem called “The Monster Cockroach” by Kornei Chukovsky, a popular Russian children’s writer. In the poem, a cockroach with a mustache becomes the ruler over other animals through intimidation. Lukashenko has a mustache. During the protests, demonstrators have called for killing the cockroach with a slipper, a metaphorical reference to getting rid of Lukashenko.
The protests were led by a popular blogger and businessman turned politician named Syarhei Tsikhanouski. Tsikhanouski was especially dangerous to Lukashenko because he was making inroads among the president’s core electorate, residents of Belarus’ impoverished regions, according to Joerg Forbrig, the director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank.
In May, when Tsikhanouski announced he was going to run for president, he was arrested and then barred from seeking the presidency. He has drawn parallels with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Ukrainian actor turned politician Volodymyr Zelensky, who went on to win the Ukrainian presidency.
Then, the presidential race was turned on its head and became a contest between the strongman Lukashenko and three women.
After Tsikhanouski was arrested, his wife, Tsikhanouskaya, stepped into the contest and became Lukashenko’s main challenger by drawing large crowds and becoming the face of the Belarusian uprising. Her campaign message was simple: She called for freeing political prisoners like her husband and new free and open elections.
But it wasn’t just Tsikhanouskaya shaking up the race. In July, she joined forces with the wife of the exiled opposition figure Valery Tsapkala, an ex-diplomat popular among Belarus’s urban elites, and Maryia Kalesnikava, a woman leading the campaign of another jailed opposition figure, former banker Viktar Babaryka. Together, the three women grabbed headlines in media outlets outside of Belarus as they campaigned for “Female Solidarity.”
“The trio campaigned with an ‘ingenious love, fight, and win’ imagery,” Forbrig said in a briefing note. “This modern, human, and emotional tone struck a chord with many Belarusians. What is more, the three women made Lukashenko and his regime look plainly anachronistic.”
Lukashenko’s grip on power may be weaker also because of his country’s declining economic fortunes and because of his poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He downplayed the severity of the virus and Belarusians found themselves largely fending for themselves and, by doing that, discovered a sense of independence from the paternalistic state apparatus, experts said.
Forbrig said the campaign saw an “unprecedented mobilization of voters” as people “turned out at rallies in numbers unseen in decades, peaking at 60,000 in Minsk.”
The regime then forbade large gatherings, but Forbrig said the large-scale demonstrations proved to citizens that “Lukashenko had obviously lost any legitimacy.”
The think tank director predicted Lukashenko’s tough tactics against the protests will only allow him to stay in power “for a few more days, months, or even years” but that Belarus is now in the midst of an unstoppable political awakening.
Forbrig, along with many others in Western Europe, urged the European Union to support the uprising with stronger actions, such as providing legal and medical help and sending funds to pro-democracy groups.
On Monday, EU leaders voiced concern over the election result and violence against demonstrators, but took no firm action. Josep Borrell, the head of foreign affairs for the EU, called on the Belarusian state to release those rounded up during the protests.
Poland called for an emergency summit of the European Council, the body led by EU heads of state, to discuss the situation in Belarus. Also, many in Europe, including German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, called for the imposition of sanctions that were lifted by the EU in 2016 against Belarusian officials and legal entities. Lifting sanctions was meant to start a dialogue with Belarus and foster engagement, but critics say that move emboldened Lukashenko.
In recent years, Belarus has made steps to improve relations with the EU and recently has sought to distance itself from Russia, its traditional ally.
“Europe, ideally in concert with the United States, can and must take a clear stance in support of Belarusian democrats now,” Forbrig said. “Their fight against a criminal regime deserves it more than ever.”
On Monday, the White House condemned the violence against protests in Belarus.
“We urge the Belarusian government to respect the right to peaceably assemble and to refrain from the use of force,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.
There are concerns that Russia may seek to get involved in the affairs of its neighbor if the uprising against Lukashenko gains strength and threatens to topple his government. In recent months, Lukashenko has angered Russian President Vladimir Putin for rejecting a strengthening of ties with Russia.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.