MINSK (Reuters) – Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya said on Tuesday that she had fled abroad for the sake of her children, after two nights of clashes following the controversial re-election of strongman President Alexander Lukashenko.
Tikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, emerged from ambiguity to give Lukashenko the biggest challenge of the year and took her husband’s place in the campaign after he was imprisoned.
“You know, I thought the whole campaign had really made me hard and given me so much strength that I could handle anything,” she said, explaining her decision in a grim video released on her husband̵
“But I’m probably still the weak woman I was in the first place. I have made a very difficult decision for myself. ”
Both she and the Belarusian authorities said she had not been forced to leave.
There had been concerns about Tikhanouskaya’s whereabouts after her campaign team said on Monday that they had not been able to reach her by phone hours after she was known to have left a meeting with key election commission officials.
Tuesday morning she had gone with her children to Lithuania. The State Border Committee later confirmed her resignation.
And I know that many people will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me. But you know, God forbids being faced with such a choice as I was facing, ”she said.
So people, please take care – no life is worth what happens now. Children are the most important thing in our lives. ”
At least one person died when police clashed with protesters on Monday after the opposition accused Lukashenko of voting in the midst of widespread criticism from Western leaders.
Auxiliary police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades and used batons to disperse thousands of people in Minsk during a second night of violence. Protesters set up barricades in several areas and threw petrol bombs.
Local media reported collisions in other cities.
In power for more than a quarter of a century, Lukashenko has compared protesters to criminal gangs and dangerous revolutionaries to shady foreign supporters.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the election was “not free and fair” and condemned “ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters”.
Foreign observers have not judged a free and fair election in Belarus since 1995, and at the end of this month’s vote, authorities saw Lukashenko’s prison rivals and open criminal investigations by others who expressed opposition.
Tikhanouskaya’s campaign rallies drew some of the largest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. She was initially reluctant to stand up and said she had received an anonymous threat to have her children removed.
She had moved them abroad during the campaign.
Her husband, Syarhei, had popularized a protest movement that compared Lukashenko to a cockroach character from a child’s fairy tale. He was arrested in May.
Further reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; constitution by Matthias Williams; edited by John Stonestreet, Giles Elgood and Nick Macfie