Opposition candidate in Belarus flees the country, releases video under duress

Yesterday I wrote about the election in Belarus which took place Sunday. After the government announced that President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, would win another term there were massive protests in the streets and as many as 3,000 people were arrested. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a housewife who agreed to run for office after her husband was arrested, had gone to a government office with her attorneys to officially contest the results of the election which, by all accounts was fraudulent. However, after five hours no one had seen or heard from her and there was concern she had been arrested.

Today, Tikhanovskaya turned up in Lithuania, having fled her country. She released a video on her husband’s popular YouTube channel in which she claimed she had made the decision on her own:

Looking haggard and distressed, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher and political novice, apologized to her supporters in a video statement and said it was her own choice to leave the country.

“It was a very hard decision to make,” she said. “I know that many of you will understand me, many others will condemn me and some will even hate me. But God forbid you ever face the choice that I faced.”

In another video statement released later on Tuesday, she urged her supporters to respect the law and avoid clashes with police.

Her campaign aides said she made the unexpected move under duress. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband has been at a Belarusian jail since his arrest in May.

“It’s very difficult to resist pressure when your family and all your inner circle have been taken hostages,” said Maria Kolesnikova, a top associate of Tsikhanouskaya.

Here’s the first video described above. You can use auto-translation to get a sense of what she’s saying but the translation isn’t very good. What’s more important is her obvious distress.

The other video in which she asked protesters to accept the official results is even more clearly a kind of hostage video. She’s reading a script and it’s a safe bet she didn’t write it. Both of these clips were reportedly filmed in Belarus before she left the country.

It’s pretty clear what is happening here. Tikhanovskaya went in to file a complaint about the election and was given a choice. Either she could tell her supporters to accept the results of the election and flee the country with her children or she could go to jail and maybe not see her children again for a few years or longer. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some fairly clear threats about what could happen to her and her husband (who is already in prison) and maybe to her children during her stint in prison. Some descriptions of beatings and torture seem likely. In short, she was told ‘read this statement or we brutalize your family.’ That’s the choice she faced that she said she wouldn’t wish on anyone else.

She made the right choice because President Aleksandr Lukashenko would have followed through on whatever threats were made. She would have disappeared, probably been beaten and Lukashenko’s goons would still be out in the street crushing the protests.

A total of 5,000 people have been arrested so far, so many that the police stations can’t hold them all:

This is a tragedy for the people of Belarus who very likely elected this woman to be their president yesterday (though we’ll never really know). Instead the dictator remains in power and the world gets another lesson in the ways that a ruthless ruler can use the state to crush dissent. It’s happening right now in North Korea, Hong Kong, China, Russia and Venezuela, to name a few and the dictators seem to be growing more bold by the day.