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'Joan Of Arc' In Exile: Can Tikhanovskaya Lead Belarus From Abroad?

Violent clashes continue to rock Belarus after opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country, following President Lukashenko's reelection.

No choice but to flee to neighboring Lithuania for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya
No choice but to flee to neighboring Lithuania for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya
Kirill Krivosheyev

MINSK — As protests take over Belarus, following a presidential election that many are calling rigged, a new opposition government begins abroad. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lost the Sunday election to 26-year incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, is trying to gain international traction as the legitimate president of the Eastern European country.

Tikhanovskaya will manage affairs from exile in Lithuania, where she fled in the early hours of Aug. 11 after what appears to have been long and extremely distressing talks with representatives of the Belarusian authorities.

"You know, I thought that this campaign had really toughened me up and given me the strength to endure anything," Tikhanovskaya says in a video message she recorded that same morning. "But, probably, I'm still the same weak woman I was in the first place. I have made a very difficult decision for myself."

"I pray that you will never be faced with a choice like the one I found myself facing," she continues. "So, people, please take care of yourselves. What is happening now is not worth a single life. Children are the most important thing we have in our lives."

While Tikhanovskaya had sent her children to Lithuania for safety before the election, her husband, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, is in custody after being detained by Belarusian authorities during the election campaign — a situation that has been compared to being effectively held hostage.

Europe's last dictator has refused to acknowledge defeat.

Tikhanovskaya is one of three women who took over campaigning after their male counterparts were barred from the presidential race. They have electrified a country tired of corruption and economic stagnation, and infuriated by President Lukashenko's bungled response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Informal exit polls indicated overwhelming support for Tikhanovskaya.

But Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and is often described as Europe's last dictator, has refused to acknowledge defeat, instead claiming a landslide victory of 80% of votes — and prompting enraged Belarusians to take to the streets in protest.

In response, authorities have launched a harsh crackdown, with riot police and special forces using water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse protesters. Clashes have resulted in thousands of detentions and widespread arbitrary beatings of protesters and passersby in cities across Belarus.

The day before Tikhanovskaya fled the country, Belarusian state television broadcasted a video recording of her that showed signs of having been recorded under duress. "I do not want blood and violence. I ask you not to resist the police, not to go out onto the squares, so as not to put your lives in danger," she appears to read with downcast eyes, sitting on a dark leather sofa. She had earlier declared that she saw herself as the legitimate winner of the elections.

Anti-Lukashenko protests on Aug.12 — Photo: Cezary Kowalski/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Opposition supporters are convinced that the message was dictated to Tikhanovskaya following a long meeting with security officials in the offices of the Central Electoral Commission, where she had gone on Aug, 10 to register an official complaint of election fraud. The sofa and background in the video have since been matched to photographs previously taken in the office of Lidia Yermoshina, chairwoman of Belarus's Central Election Commission.

"No person in their right mind believes that Tikhanovskaya recorded this video voluntarily," says Lithuania"s President Gitanas Nausėda. "It's just one piece of evidence of what methods the regime uses to break individuals and the spirit of the people."

Belarusian border authorities have confirmed that she left the country at the Kotlovka border crossing at around 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 11.

Government in exile?

Lithuania's foreign minister Linas Linkevičius said that the country may become not only a refuge for Belarusian opposition figures, but also a partner that shares their goal for a democratic Belarus. "We think that we now need to make some corrections in our position toward Belarus," says Linkevičius. "I think all options and opportunities for choice should be on the table, and there should be certain consequences, including even probable sanctions, for those who have carried out this fraud, who have used excessive force."

Linkevičius offered Vilnius"s services as a mediator in potential talks between the current Belarusian authorities and opposition, and Warsaw has made a similar suggestion.

Opposition figure Valery Tsepkalo, who was blocked by the authorities from registering as a candidate for the 2020 presidential elections, told Kommersant on Aug. 11 that the Belarusian opposition intends to turn to the international community for support.

"We have called for a conference, an EU summit, with the invitation of interested parties, that is, of course, primarily Belarus's neighbors," Tsepkalo says. "There we will present documents of the falsifications, about how the electoral process was conducted. Countries can then decide whether the election process in Belarus met elementary norms and who as a result is the real winner of these elections."

Tsepkalo also shared details of the duties of the Committee of National Salvation, the creation of which was announced on Aug. 11. This will effectively function as a government in exile. "We will form an economic unit, a legal unit ... We have many people from the security bodies who have followed us in accordance with their conscience and the law," he said. "We'll see — perhaps the committee will gradually grow into the future government of Belarus, which will carry out free democratic elections."

Women-led marches & worker strikes

Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities are doing everything in their power to convince the population that the protests are over, and that the leader of the opposition has abandoned her supporters.

The prediction that with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya out of the picture, the protests would just peter out, turned out to be rather misguided. On Aug. 12 and 13, hundreds of women marched through the streets of Minsk and other cities dressed in white, holding flowers aloft. Medical professionals and taxi drivers have also joined the demonstrations.

Authorities are doing everything in their power to convince the population that the protests are over.

However, the most significant development is a number of large factories announcing strikes. The Minsk Electrotechnical Plant was first, followed by the Zhabinovsky sugar factory, the Minsk Tractor Plant and the Keramin ceramics plant. Hundreds of workers have walked off the job, putting their livelihoods on the line while facing potential arrest.

The leader of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Workers' Unions (BKDP) Alexander Yaroshuk told Kommersant that there were serious risks associated with this form of protest in the country. "In Belarus there are absolutely no opportunities to legally go on strike," he says. "In Russia workers bear no responsibility for participation in a strike, even if a court subsequently proclaims it illegal. In Belarus this ends in the best case scenario with dismissal and in the worst, with a criminal case being opened."

In Warsaw, Poland, on Aug. 10 — Photo: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The last successful strike in Belarus was in 1992, with miners achieving a pay raise. Since Lukashenko's election, there has been only one strike, in 1995. Striking subway drivers were brutally suppressed and ultimately lost their jobs. Now, 25 years later, protestors once again took to the Minsk subway this week. One man jumped on the rails and blocked a train, holding a poster reading, "Stop killing and maiming people." Authorities quickly shut down stations in attempts to stem demonstrations. But despite the threats to their lives and with their own "Joan of Arc" in exile, Belarusians seem undeterred in finally gaining their democratic freedoms.

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