MINSK, Belarus — The main challenger in Belarus’s disputed presidential election said Tuesday she made a “difficult decision” to leave the country, after a second night of street clashes between police and opposition supporters left a protester dead.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has claimed victory over authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in Sunday’s vote, said she had left out of concern for her children, with Lithuania saying she was “safe” in the neighboring country.
“I have made a very difficult decision,” a distressed-looking Tikhanovskaya said in a short video address.
“Children are the most important thing we have in life,” said the 37-year-old, whose five-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son had earlier been taken out of the country for their safety.
“I know that many will understand me, many will judge me, and many will begin to hate me,” Tikhanovskaya said. “But God forbid anyone face the choice I had.”
The political novice, who has energized Belarus’s embattled opposition, had gone incommunicado Monday night.
On Tuesday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP Tikhanovskaya had arrived in the EU member country and “is safe.”
EU and NATO member Lithuania, which like Belarus was once part of the Soviet Union, has a history of granting refuge to Belarusian and Russian opposition figures.
Her surfacing in Lithuania came after thousands took to the streets of the capital Minsk for a second night on Monday, after authorities said longtime ruler Lukashenko had secured a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote.
Tikhanovskaya, a political neophyte, came second with 10% and protesters are backing her claim to have won the election.
‘We will not stop’
For the second night in a row, police used rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas to disperse demonstrations, though protesters fought back with stones and fireworks and built makeshift barricades, AFP reporters, protesters and witnesses said.
The chaotic scenes of defiance that saw protesters angrily push back against police in full riot gear were highly unusual in the authoritarian country, where many say Lukashenko’s time is up.
“Our goal is to overthrow the Lukashenko regime,” Yakov, a 51-year-old engineer, told AFP in Minsk.
He said neither the departure of Tikhanovskaya nor deadly risks would stop protesters.
“That Tikhanovskaya has left for Lithuania is even better, she is safe there.”
Yan, a 28-year-old paramedic, added: “We will not stop despite police brutality. We are fighting for our right to live in a free country.”
Lukashenko’s opponents have called for running protests against his regime and there were also calls for strikes.
Dozens of people have been injured in the violence and the first fatality was confirmed on Monday when police said a man died after an explosive device went off in his hand.
Young protesters were seen covered in blood, lying immobile on the ground or being dragged away by police.
Olga Kovalkova, a member of Tikhanovskaya’s staff, said she believed the candidate had left the country against her will after meeting with officials on Monday at the Central Election Commission.
“The Belarusian authorities took Svetlana to Lithuania. She had no choice,” Kovalkova said. “Before entering the Central Election Commission, she had no plans to leave the country. It was not her decision.”
‘Intimidation of opposition’
Tikhanovskaya decided to run for president after the authorities jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, and barred him from contesting.
Her campaign galvanized the opposition, presenting a historic challenge to former collective farm director Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, brooking no dissent and earning the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator.”
Western governments have condemned the police crackdown, with some in the European Union suggesting it may reimpose sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime that were lifted several years ago.
The White House said it was “deeply concerned” by the violence.
European governments also questioned the results, with Germany voicing “strong doubts” about the conduct of the vote, France urging restraint and Poland calling for an emergency EU summit.
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenko, a longtime ally, as did Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Lukashenko was defiant on Monday, vowing he would not allow Belarus to be “torn apart” and suggesting protesters were foreign pawns.
“We recorded calls from abroad. There were calls from Poland, Britain and the Czech Republic, they were directing our — forgive me — sheep,” he said.