Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate in Sunday’s disputed elections in Belarus, has left the country as clashes between heavily armed police and demonstrators escalated during a second night of protests.
Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, told the Guardian that she had been detained by Belarusian authorities for seven hours after filing a complaint against vote-rigging. She crossed the border towards morning, he said.
“Now she’s in Lithuania, taking some rest, and we will see what are her further plans and intentions,” he said, adding he couldn’t reveal some details.
A member of her campaign team said that Tikhanovskaya had been pressured to leave the country by the government in exchange for the release of her campaign manager, Maria Moroz, who had been held by police since Saturday.
Linkevičius confirmed to the Guardian that Tikhanovskaya and Moroz came to Lithuania together. Asked whether Tikhanovskaya had fled the country or been expelled, he said: “It was not her intention I believe to leave Belarus but it was the only option she could take, I believe.”
In a video published on Tuesday morning, a visibly distressed Tikhanovskaya indicated she had faced an ultimatum. “God forbid you face the kind of face that I faced,” she said. “Children are the most important thing in our lives.”
Veronika Tsepkalo, a senior ally of Tikhanovskaya, told the Guardian that she had also fled the country late on Monday evening after being told there was “an order out for my arrest”. She had returned to Belarus one day earlier from Russia, where her husband, a former presidential candidate, had also fled last month.
According to Belarus’ election commission Tikhanovskaya took just 10.09% of the vote, while the longtime ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, won 80.08%.
On Monday Tikhanovskaya filed a complaint against the official results at the commission building in the capital, Minsk. Later, at least one person was killed and dozens injured in a second night of clashes between riot police and protesters.
The fighting late on Monday appeared to escalate as police once again employed rubber bullets and stun grenades against demonstrators, while some shot back with fireworks and several Molotov cocktails, according to a Guardian reporter who estimated the crowd at several thousand people.
Protesters also began constructing crude barricades from shopping carts, fencing, breezeblocks and other items found on the street.
Some said they had decided to join the protests after scenes of harrowing violence on Sunday evening, when police attacked demonstrators with rubber bullets, water cannon, stun grenades and batons.
“I never went to protests before and until yesterday I told everyone I know not to go either,” said a young protester in a hoodie wearing a medical mask. “But when I saw how they beat people across the street from my house, I realised I couldn’t sit at home any longer.”
“Look at what’s happening in Belarus,” Tsepkalo said. “People are fighting for their right to choose their president. It’s unacceptable that Lukashenko is shedding the blood of Belarusian people and ordering mass arrests for that.
“All of our staffers are afraid. Everyone who was public during the campaign, they’re all in danger of arrest.”
Lukashenko, who is facing the deepest crisis of his 26 years in power, has threatened to crush any illegal rallies. He claimed that the protests were being directed from abroad, singling out Poland, Britain and the Czech Republic.
The protests have largely been decentralised, with no clear leader, although popular bloggers on social media have played an important role in their coordination. Protesters organising over Telegram channels discussed bringing protective gear such as goggles and first-aid kits as they expected fresh clashes with riot police armed with batons, rubber bullets, water cannon and stun grenades.
Following the clashes on Monday night, the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted: “Violent repression and arrests of peaceful protesters in Belarus have to stop.”
The EU has said it is reassessing relations with Lukashenko’s government, but has so far stopped short of proposing sanctions. “This is such a serious situation, it really needs a profound discussion among the member states,” said a spokesman for Borrell. “Anything is on the table, anything is possible as long as the member states agree.”
There are fears that Hungary could block EU sanctions, which require unanimity, after prime minister Viktor Orbán called in June for the bloc to drop existing measures against Belarus.
Tikhanovskaya was initially a stand-in candidate for her husband, a popular YouTuber jailed earlier in the year. But she grew into an effective campaigner, attracting more than 63,000 people to a rally last month in Minsk, and thousands more in small cities and towns usually dominated by Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, came to power in 1994. Foreign observers have not declared a Belarusian election free and fair since 1995. He was already facing unprecedented anger over his handling of the economy and a bungled coronavirus response.