Svetlana Tikhanouskaya was told by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that the responsibility of being president of the eastern European country would cause her to “collapse, poor thing”.
Lukashenko, Belarus’ authoritarian leader who has been referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ has previously said, “society is not mature enough to vote for a woman.”
At Sunday’s election in Belarus, 37-year-old Tikhanouskaya, a former teacher, was Lukashenko’s main opposition. In the lead up to the election, she galvanised support across the country in way that has not been seen since Lukashenko came into power in 1994, drawing record crowds at rallies, and capturing the mood of a country tarnished by an authoritarian regime and ready for change.
According to the country’s election commission, the incumbent won in a landslide victory with 80 per cent of the vote, with Tikhanouskaya receiving just 10 per cent. Like past elections in Belarus, the result is widely considered to have been rigged and falsely reported. Under Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime, Belarus’ elections are not judged to be free and fair by many Western critics.
Tikhanovskaya herself rejected the election result, telling reporters on Monday, “I will believe my own eyes – the majority was for us.”
“The authorities should think about how to peacefully hand over power to us,” she said. “I consider myself the winner of this election.”
It has been an explosive few day in Belarus since the election on Sunday, with mass protests breaking out in multiple cities and reports of police violence. It’s been reported that 6,000 Belarusians have been detained over four days of protests.
It’s been revealed that Tikhanovskaya was detained after attempting to file a complaint about the election result, surfacing only in a video where she appeared to be reading from a script, telling protestors to accept Lukashenko’s victory and stop protesting. The Guardian wrote that she looked like a hostage.
Situation gets weirder: In video apparently recorded before she left Belarus, reading from script, Tikhanovskaya calls on Belarusians to accept Lukashenko’s “victory” and stop protesting. We know she was held incommunicado at election commission yday. Seems this happened there. pic.twitter.com/eWb93Vcxap— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) August 11, 2020
It has since been revealed that Tikhanovskaya is in Lithuania, saying in another video, where she appears visibly distressed, she left for the safety of her children.
“Not a single life is worth what is happening now,” she said. “Children are the most important thing we have in life.”
Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Linas Linkevicius confirmed she is safe.
The trio of women who took on Lukashenko
Svetlana Tikhanouskaya was an unlikely and reluctant opposition leader. It was actually her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a prominent blogger and YouTuber, who harboured presidential ambitions. But after he announced his intention to run for the presidency, he was arrested, detained, and stopped from registering as a candidate. He has been in prison since May.
After his arrest, Tikhanouskaya stepped forward with a team of impressive women behind her. Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of a former ambassador to the United States who was prevented from standing at the election, and Maria Kolesnikova, a member of another presidential candidate’s team, who had also been detained.
The three women were a unified, although at first unlikely, team. Their campaigning efforts in the lead up to the election were impressive and drew a positive response from people across the country. Tikhanouskaya quickly became a symbol of the growing movement for democracy.
She was only allowed to proceed in the election race by Belurasian authorities because Lukashenko did not see her as a threat. And despite Sunday’s election result, many commentators say change is in the air.
Tikhanouskaya has invigorated the Belarusian people, who are becoming increasingly willing to challenge the regime.