Violence and anger have engulfed the streets of Belarus following an election result which authorities claimed restored the ruling dictator with an overwhelming majority of votes.
Residents have flooded the streets for another night of protest to denounce the election result, deemed rigged by many, as the opposition candidate – a housewife and former English teacher – went missing.
Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, who emerged from obscurity to challenge “Europe's last dictator”, was unable to be located on Monday (local time), according to her staff who told the Washington Post she had “vanished”.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs for neighbouring Lithuania, Linas Linkevicius, tweeted this morning that he had tried to reach Ms Tikhanovskaya for “several hours” and he was concerned about her safety.
— Linas Linkevicius (@LinkeviciusL) August 10, 2020
According to local reports, her staff claimed she was not answering her phone and they did know where she was. Ahead of the vote, Ms Tikhanovskaya went into hiding after police detained her campaign staffers but later emerged at a polling station.
The 37-year-old was later said to be in Lithuania with her children, the country’s Foreign Minister revealed.
“Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is safe. She is in Lithuania,” Mr Linkevicius tweeted late Tuesday afternoon (AEST). But as the unlikely Belarusian politician takes refuge across the border, the political turmoil in her home country will likely spark more bloodshed in the coming days.
Opposition leader calls for peaceful transfer of power
As leader of the opposition, Ms Tikhanouskaya earlier rejected the official election result handing President Alexander Lukashenko a landslide re-election victory.
The country’s central election commission said Mr Lukashenko, in power for more than a quarter of a century, won 80 per cent of the vote in Sunday's election, while Ms Tikhanouskaya took just 9.9 per cent.
As people continue to take to the street in clashes with authorities, Ms Tikhanouskaya declared the election rigged and said talks were needed to begin the process for a peaceful transfer of power.
“Of course we do not recognise the results,” she said.
“The authorities are not listening to us. The authorities need to think about peaceful ways to hand over power.”
The former English teacher entered the race after her blogger husband was jailed. Her campaign rallies have drawn some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus since 1995, and the run-up to the vote saw authorities jail Mr Lukashenko's rivals and open criminal investigations into others who voiced opposition.
Reports of pro-democracy protests across Belarus tonight and extraordinary scenes in Minsk in particular. It seems that, this time, the people of Belarus aren’t willing to settle for a rigged election. pic.twitter.com/73X90NQwWe
— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) August 9, 2020
The political unrest has global implications
As angry residents continue to clash with police, observers say the events are being closely watched by Russia, whose oil exports run through Belarus to the West. The Kremlin has long regarded the country as a buffer zone against NATO, and the West, which has tried to lure Minsk from Moscow's orbit.
The streets in the capital and other cities were quiet after violence on Sunday night (local time) when riot police used force to disperse thousands of protesters. When crowds gathered again on Monday, police in Minsk used rubber bullets and tear gas as protests turned bloody once again.
The street clashes came after Ms Tikhanouskaya told reporters she considered herself the election winner, saying the poll had been massively rigged.
The opposition now wants a vote recount at polling stations where there were problems, her aides said, adding that protests would continue.
They said they were ready to hold talks with the ruling party.
‘Europe’s last dictator’ refuses to step down
Mr Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager, has ruled Belarus since 1994 and has made no suggestion he is willing to meet for talks about handing over power.
Once dubbed Europe's last dictator by Washington, he faces his biggest challenge in years to keep his grip on power amid discontent over his handling of the economy, COVID-19, and human rights abuses.
He has since signalled he would not step down.
“The response will be appropriate. We won't allow the country to be torn apart,” the 65-year-old was quoted by the Belta news agency as saying.
Mr Lukashenko repeated allegations that shadowy forces abroad were trying to manipulate protesters he called “sheep” in order to topple him.
“They are trying to orchestrate mayhem,” he reportedly said. “But I have already warned: there will be no revolution.”
Svetlana Tikhanouskaya is the legitimate president-elect of Belarus. Countries expressing their mealy mouthed "grave concerns" about the ongoing repression would do well to publicly recognize her. pic.twitter.com/0jrxd1Qxow
— Anonymous (@YourAnonCentral) August 10, 2020
According to Reuters, the European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the election had been marred by "disproportionate and unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters".
A spokesman for the German foreign ministry said there were numerous indications of electoral fraud and that the EU was discussing how to react. Neighbouring Poland said it wants a special EU summit on Belarus.
Meanwhile Russia's RIA news agency cited the Belarusian Interior Ministry as saying that police had detained around 3,000 people during post-election protests.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.