Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, was a political unknown in May when she replaced her husband as a challenger to Europe’s longest-serving leader, Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko.
Now, days after the election, Tsikhanouskaya is in hiding in Lithuania, after fleeing across the border in the middle of the night because of fears about her children’s safety.
"God forbid any of you are forced with the choice that I was,” a tearful and distressed Tsikhanouskaya said in a YouTube video posted on Tuesday morning. “Not one life is worth what is happening right now. Children are the most important thing in our lives.”
Tsikhanouskaya had evacuated her children to an unnamed European country ahead of the election due to unspecified threats against them.
“This campaign really gave me a shot in the arm and I thought I could survive everything,” Tikhanovskaya said in the video. “But I am probably still the same weak woman I was to begin with.”
Tsikanouskaya was propelled to prominence in May when her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber who hoped to challenge Lukshenko’s 26-year rule, was jailed. He was charged last month with plotting “mass disturbances.”
Tsikhanouskaya said on Tuesday that she made the decision to leave of her own accord, but her spokesperson Volha Kavalkova told independent Belarusian news site Tut.by on Tuesday that Belarusian authorities had taken Tsikhanouskaya out of the country.
“Sviatlana had no choice,” Kavalkova said. “It is important that she is free and alive. She left along with her campaign chief Maryya Maroz. But part of Sviatlana’s team continues to be held hostage here” in Belarus.
In the wake of Sunday’s presidential election, Tsikhanouskaya had vowed to stay in Belarus and fight the results, which handed Lukashenko a landslide victory and a sixth term in office.
Tsikanouskaya has refused to concede defeat, pointing to evidence of vote-rigging.
"We are gathering proof of falsifications,” Tsikhanouskaya told Euronews on Monday. "We have people who are officially ready to confirm falsifications at poll stations.”
Later on Monday, Tsikhanouskaya went to the Electoral Commission in Belarus to formally request a recount of Sunday's presidential election. While she was at the commission, her campaign said they had lost contact with her, raising fears she had been detained.
But she emerged hours later telling reporters “I have made a decision, I must be with my children,” without elaborating.
On Tuesday morning, Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted that Tsikhanouskaya is now “safe” in Vilnius.
A second video of Tsikhanouskaya, which appeared to be recorded before she left Belarus, also emerged on Tuesday, showing the 37-year-old reading a prepared statement calling on her supporters to accept the election result.
“Belarusians, I call for your prudence and ask you to respect the law. I do not want blood or violence. I ask you not to resist the police, and not to [protest] so that your lives are not endangered,” she said.
But Tsikhanovskaya’s supporters on Telegram, the messaging app central to the organization of the protests, suggested the video was coerced, the Financial Times reported.
Since the election, protesters have flooded the streets in cities across Belarus in scenes that have never before been seen during Lukashenko’s rule, where he has wielded power over the country’s 9.5 million citizens with an iron fist.
Police responded with a brutal crackdown against what began as peaceful protests, using rubber bullets, flash grenades, and tear gas to disperse the crowds. Dozens of people have been injured and thousands arrested as the protests continued for a second night and into Tuesday morning.
At least one protester was killed on Monday after an explosive he was planning to throw detonated in his hand.
Cover: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, candidate for the presidential elections, speaks at a news conference after the Belarusian presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)