There were clashes for a third consecutive night in Belarus, as security forces again used violence in an attempt to disperse protesters demanding an end to the rule of the country’s long-time dictator Alexander Lukashenko following a disputed election.
The protests continued hours after it emerged Belarus’ main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had left the country for neighboring Lithuania. Tikhanovskaya’s effort to unseat Lukashenko had attracted a wave of support that led to Sunday’s contested election.
The exact circumstance under which Tikhanovskaya left Belarus was unclear, but she implied she might have been forced to leave because of a threat to her family.
In an emotional video, in which she seemed to feel constrained by what she could say, Tikhanovskaya said she had taken the “very difficult decision” to leave herself.
“I thought that this election campaign had made me strong and had given me the power to withstand anything, but perhaps I’m still that weak woman that I was initially,” she said in the video.
“I know that many people will understand me, many will judge me, and many will hate me, but God forbid you face such a choice that I had to face,” she said. “That’s why I say, people, take care of yourselves, please. What is going on right now is not worth a single lost life. Children are the most important thing in our life.”
Her campaign staff told the independent Belarusian site, Tut.by, that she had been taken to Lithuania by Belarus’ security services in a deal that allowed her to free her campaign manager Maria Moroz.
Lukashenko, often known as “Europe’s Last Dictator,” received over 80% of the vote in Sunday’s election, against just under 10% for Tikhanovskaya amid widespread allegations of ballot-rigging. The result triggered protests across Belarus, with Tikhanovskaya calling for Lukashenko to handover power so she could call fresh elections without him.
Tikhanovskaya had not joined the protests since they began after the election and had been in hiding since Saturday night, amid fears authorities might arrest her.
She disappeared on Monday after visiting an elections commission to file a formal complaint about the election.
A second video was posted on Tuesday showing Tikhanovskaya sitting in an office before she left Belarus and appearing to be forced to read a statement, in which she called for people not to protest or resist police.
The video—which some suggested was filmed while Tikhanovskaya was inside the elections commission—appeared to many as coerced.
A former teacher, Tikhanovskaya had been a stay-at-home mother until a few weeks ago when she decided to step in for her husband, a popular blogger, after he was jailed and prevented from running against Lukashenko. A reluctant politician, she nonetheless became an effective political campaigner. Her rallies attracted tens of thousands of people, the biggest in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union, as she channeled unprecedented discontent with Lukashenko.
During the election campaign, Tikhanovskaya sent her children out of Belarus after she said she received a phone call threatening to send them to an orphanage if she didn’t drop out.
It was unclear Tikhanovskaya’s leaving would impact the protests. They have largely been leaderless, and the opposition social media channels that have called for them are not from Tikhanovskaya’s campaign.
Tikhanovskaya had avoided explicitly calling for protests and had not attended them. She has repeatedly urged people to avoid violence, calling on Lukashenko to negotiate a peaceful handover of power.
One of Tikhanovskaya’s fellow leaders, Veronika Tsepkalo, said on Monday night she was also leaving Belarus because she said there was an order out for her arrest. She had returned only a day earlier from Moscow, where her husband, also another banned presidential candidate, is in self-exile.
There were protests in Minsk as well on Tuesday as some other cities. Heavily-armed riot police again attacked protesters, using stun grenades and clubbing people. In videos, police appeared to use indiscriminate violence, with some videos circulating, showing police armed with steel shields seeming to beat people almost at random.
There had been intense clashes the night before, as demonstrators sought to stand their ground in the face of the police, who used water cannons and rubber bullets. Authorities said at least 200 people were injured and one demonstrator killed that night.
Lukashenko has dismissed the protests as a foreign-backed plot and described the crackdown as justified.
The European Union has said it will review its relations with Belarus over the situation. He bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeting: “Violent repression and arrests of peaceful protesters in Belarus have to stop.”
In a statement, Borrell said the EU could, as part of the planned review of relations with Belarus, take “measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results,” without elaborating.