Thursday, February 2, 2023

Belarusian challenger flees country after electoral chaos

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KYIV – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who initially refused to accept what she called a fraudulent result in the contested Belarusian election, told supporters on Tuesday that she fled overnight to Lithuania.

In the last round of the extraordinary events that shook the country, she urged Belarusians to stop protesting and alluded to the pressures that forced her to leave.

Appearing exhausted in a tear video from Lithuania, Tikhanovskaya said the decision to leave was his and was taken for the sake of his children.

“Many will understand me, many will judge, some will hate me,” she said. “What is happening now is not even worth a life,” she added, referring to the violent clashes between heavily armed riot police and protesters that have erupted across the country and escalated during the war. ‘a second night of demonstrations on Monday.

She clarified that after meeting the Belarusian authorities, she felt that she had no choice but to flee to another country. “God forbid you have to face the choice that I was faced with,” she said.

The protests turned into a nationwide strike on Tuesday, with workers from several state-owned enterprises quitting their jobs to protest police brutality and incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko’s official declaration as the winner in Sunday’s election. They also demanded the release of all demonstrators.

Riot police attacked the protesters with rubber bullets, stun grenades, tear gas, water cannons and batons. Images shared on social media showed people with bloody head and torso injuries. Videos show police officers using clubs to beat people curled up on the ground. A video which was widely broadcast shows dozens of inmates forced to lie face down on the grounds of a detention center surrounded by barbed wire as armed officers stand over them.

Belarusian authorities said they detained another 2,000 people on Monday and early Tuesday morning after taking more than 3,000 people into custody on the first night of protests. Police reported Tuesday that a man died overnight after an explosive device detonated in his hand, while independent local media reported dozens of protesters were severely beaten and injured on the streets and in jail.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet nation of 9.5 million since 1994, called the opposition a “sheep” manipulated by Western governments to overthrow it.

He specifically called on Poland, the UK, and the Czech Republic for alleged involvement, but he also suggested that the US could be involved after a US diplomatic passport holder was detained. This man, Vitali Shkliarov, worked on Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

The United States, which has worked hard to normalize relations with Belarus for the past year or more, is closely monitoring events in the country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February, and in April President Donald Trump appointed Julie Fisher, currently Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, as the first U.S. Ambassador to Belarus since the last was kicked out in 2008. Minsk also nominated. an ambassador in Washington.

On Monday, Pompeo said in a statement that the United States supports the “aspirations of the Belarusian people for a democratic and prosperous future.”

He said: “To achieve these goals, the Belarusian Government must demonstrate through action its commitment to democratic processes and respect for human rights.”

Speaking on behalf of the White House, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters: “Severe restrictions on access to the ballot boxes for candidates, the ban of independent local observers at polling stations, l The intimidation of opposition candidates and the detention of peaceful protesters and journalists marred the process and we urge the Belarusian government to respect the right of people to assemble peacefully and to refrain from the use of force. “

Former vice president and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden also weighed. “I support those who call for a transparent and accurate vote count and the release of all political prisoners,” he said. “I also call on President Lukashenko to respect the rights of peaceful demonstrators and to refrain from further violence.”

Tikhanovskaya’s video was greeted with relief but also confusion from supporters who held their collective breath as they awaited news of his whereabouts after she disappeared Monday, following a visit to the Central Election Commission (CEC).

She had gone there to file an official complaint about the election results. According to the CEC, Lukashenko won 80.08% of the vote on Sunday and Tikhanovskaya only collected 10.09%. Independent election observers were not allowed to observe the ballot boxes, but the Tikhanovskaya camp mobilized its own observers to monitor the polling stations. They, along with independent media reporters, reported witnessing large-scale election rigging.

She remained inside the building for several hours. When she finally emerged, her campaign said she told them she had “made a decision” before leaving alone in a car.

The next time anyone heard of Tikhanovskaya was when Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius tweeted Tuesday morning that she was “safe”, but that she had been detained by Belarusian authorities, held incommunicado for seven hours at the CEC, then taken to Lithuania. A source familiar with her travels who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the case told BuzzFeed News that she crossed the border at 3.30am local time and was being helped by Lithuanian authorities .

Three hours after Linkevičius’ tweet, Tikhanovskaya posted what would be the first of two videos. In that of Lithuania, she hinted that she had received an ultimatum from Belarusian authorities, who are currently detaining her husband, popular vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky. He had announced his candidacy for the presidency before being detained and jailed in May.

In a second video, published by Belarusian state media on Tuesday afternoon, a distressed Tikhanovskaya read a piece of paper inside the CEC.

“Belarusians, I urge you to exercise common sense and respect the law,” she said in the video, without looking up at the camera. “I don’t want blood and violence. I ask you not to confront the police and not to go to the squares to put your life in danger. Take care of yourself and your loved ones.

A Tikhanovskaya campaign staff member told BuzzFeed News that the government pressured the candidate to make the video and leave the country in exchange for the release of her campaign manager, Maria Moroz, detained by police since Saturday. Moroz is now also in Lithuania, according to the staff member.

Later Tuesday, the campaign released a statement to local media repeating Tikhanovskaya’s comments. “We support all those who peacefully protest against electoral fraud. We are against violence and call on the authorities not to resort to violence against civilians. … We propose a dialogue on the peaceful transfer of power to the people.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Minsk and other cities across the country after a violent night in which riot police again used rubber bullets and stun grenades against the demonstrators, and some demonstrators shoot fireworks and throw Molotov cocktails Towards the ranks of the police, thousands of protesters continued to rally and express their anger at what they called a stolen election.

Peaceful walkouts were underway at state-owned enterprises in the city to try to shut down the economy and put pressure on the government. Solo pickets have also been reported, with a man even jumping in front of a train in the Minsk metro to lift a sign adorned with a request to the police “to stop mutilating and killing people!”

Veronika Tsepkalo, who along with Tikhanovskaya was among the trio of women campaigning to oust Lukashenko, told BuzzFeed News from Moscow that she also fled Belarus late Monday evening after “receiving reports that I was also going to be detained. . She had returned Sunday to Belarus from Russia, where her husband, a former presidential candidate, had also fled last month with the couple’s two children.

Asked what will happen to the opposition movement she inspired alongside Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova, the third and only member of the trio who remains in Minsk, Tsepkalo said: “People should fight for their rights. . “

As of Tuesday evening, many Belarusians appeared to be doing just that. As dusk fell over Minsk, thousands of them again poured into the streets.

Nearly followed by hundreds of heavily armed riot police, special forces and military vehicles.


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