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Belarus’ Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Even Gone, A Powerful ‘Symbol’ For Change

Belarusian presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya (flanked by Veranika Tsapkala and Maryya Kalesnikava) in Hrodna, Belarus on August 1, 2020
Belarusian presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya (flanked by Veranika Tsapkala and Maryya Kalesnikava) in Hrodna, Belarus on August 1, 2020

Her rallies, attracting thousands of participants, were described as “unprecedented.” Her simple campaign platform – free and fair elections and the release of those unfairly incarcerated – drew voters across generations. But when she suddenly left Belarus, 37-year-old Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya went from presidential candidate to symbol.

“Now, people are going [into the streets] not for Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya,” said her ally, IT entrepreneur Valer Tsapkala, Lukashenka’s ex-ambassador to the U.S. and a former unregistered presidential candidate. “They’re going for themselves, they’re going for their families, they’re going for their right of choice …”

Winner of roughly 10 percent of the vote in Belarus’ August 9 presidential election, according to disputed official figures, Tsikhanouskaya, Tsapkala said, has become “a symbol” of Belarusians’ desire for democratic change.

But in leaving, this political “symbol” has left behind a trail of unanswered questions – questions that further expose how few public means – particularly during an ongoing Internet outage -- exist for getting answers out of the Belarusian government.

After leaving Belarus for Lithuania sometime in the night of August 10-August 11, Tsikhanouskaya, who has played no role in the ongoing election protests, addressed her supporters in a YouTube video in which she describes herself as a “weak woman” forced to make “a very difficult decision.”

“I thought that this whole campaign hardened me a lot and gave me so much strength that I could endure everything. But I probably remained that weak woman that I was at the start” of the campaign, Tsikhanouskaya said, speaking in a tired voice. “I made a very difficult decision for myself. I made it absolutely independently.”

But, apart from leaving Belarus, what Tsikhanouskaya’s “decision” actually was remains unclear.

“I know that many will understand me, many will condemn me. And many will hate me,” she said. “But, you know, God forbid that anyone face the choice that I faced.”

“Children,” she added, “are the most important thing in our life.”

She did not elaborate further.

At her first post-election briefing in Minsk, held the morning of August 10, Tsikhanouskaya, clearly upset by the post-election violence between police and protesters, had emphasized that she would not leave Belarus and did not know “why I should be arrested.”

Yet a second video, released on the messaging app Telegram later on August 11, suggested that she had reason, indeed, to expect just that.

In the recording, Tsikhanouskaya, appearing to read from a prepared statement, called on Belarusians “not to confront the police and go out into the squares,” but to follow the law.

“The people of Belarus have made their choice,” she said.

Run by an anonymous manager, the pro-government Telegram channel Zheltye Slivy was the first social media account to share the video. The state-run BelTA news agency subsequently reported on it, without mentioning the earlier Tsikhanouskaya video.

In the recording, Tsikhanouskaya sits in a room with a green couch and white drapes that seem to resemble those seen in earlier images of the office of Central Elections Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Tsikhanouskaya.

[Top] Svyatlana Tikhanovskaya's second video statement; [bottom] Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Yermoshina in her office
[Top] Svyatlana Tikhanovskaya's second video statement; [bottom] Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Yermoshina in her office

On the evening of August 10, Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign had alleged that she was being held by force in Belarus’ Central Election Commission after she went to file a complaint about the preliminary election results.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, who first tweeted news of her arrival in Lithuania, later echoed that allegation, telling reporters that “it appears that she was detained for around seven hours.” He did not elaborate and had not yet spoken personally with Tsikhanouskaya at the time.

The Lithuanian embassy in Minsk and foreign ministry had tried unsuccessfully for several hours to reach the candidate on the evening of August 10, Linkevicius said.

“So, that was kind of concerning,” he said. “We called all night, basically.”

After her “detention,” Linkevicius said, “she just had not so many options. She was forced to take a decision to leave the country.” He did not elaborate further.

The Belarusian government has not stated publicly that Tsikhanouskaya was detained for any time.

Multiple members of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign, though, have been detained, and her husband, jailed vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, the inspiration for her presidential bid, now faces criminal charges of allegedly organizing a violent disruption of the presidential election.

On the eve of the August 9 election, one of Tsikhanouskaya’s two main allies, Veranika Tsapkala, the wife of Viktar Tsapkala, left the country for Russia; like her husband, reportedly fearing arrest.

That leaves just one member of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign alliance, Maryya Kalesnikava, still in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

On August 11, Kalesnikava, a former coordinator of jailed banker Viktar Babaryka’s unregistered presidential campaign, focused attention on the CEC for the answer about Tsikhanouskaya’s “difficult decision.”

Late in the afternoon of August 10, Kalesnikava told reporters, campaign lawyer Maksim Znak and she had accompanied Tsikhanouskaya to the Central Election Commission, where, she said, they were initially denied entrance.

Eventually, Tsikhanouskaya and Znak were taken to Chairwoman Lidiya Yermoshina, who describes herself as “a member of the president’s team.” Only Tsikhanouskaya, however, was allowed inside the office, Kalesnikava claimed.

But Yermoshina, apparently, soon left the office, leaving Tsikhanouskaya ”alone with two senior employees of the security structures,“ Kalesnikava continued.

“This lasted three hours. During this time, people with video equipment entered the office. Svyatlana was there without contact with us. The most recent video is the result of these three hours.”

Belarus’ law enforcement and other security organs have been under mounting pressure since August 9, as protests against election fraud continue to roil Belarus. Some 5,000 people have been detained, hundreds wounded, and at least one protester killed.

Though Tsikhanouskaya has never participated in these protests, President Lukashenka has conjectured that she is an unwitting stooge for Russia, which he already has blasted for supposedly dispatching 33 militants to undermine Belarus’ presidential vote.

Whether these claims were put to Tsikhanouskaya in the CEC is unclear, but media have reported that she was asked not to take steps that would lead to the protests becoming riots.

Like her colleagues, Kalesnikava believes the video was filmed in Yermoshina’s office “under pressure,” but said that she has no direct information about personal threats being made to Tsikhanouskaya.

According to Kalesnikava, Tsikhanouskaya did not return to say good-bye to her colleagues, telling lawyer Znak that she would leave the CEC by a different exit. He stated that Tsikhanouskaya left the CEC of her own accord.

Tsikhanouskaya campaign spokeswoman Hanna Krasulina later told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Belarusian Service that, after leaving the CEC, Tsikhanouskaya said “I’ve made a decision.”

CEC Chairwoman Yermoshina and the Interior Ministry do not appear to have responded to these allegations.

Tsikhanouskaya’s experience inside the CEC, though, already appears to have encouraged one other candidate, 35-year-old Syarhey Cherachan, to file his own complaint about the election results in writing.

Citing her initial video, many assume that Tsikhanouskaya’s decision involved her children. Tsikhanouskaya earlier had stated, including to Current Time, that she had received threats about them that had prompted her to reconsider her campaign.

Known to have left with a grandmother for the European Union before the election, they are living in Lithuania.

Tsikhanouskaya, who has a one-year visa, arrived in Lithuania around midnight or the early hours of August 11, Linkevicius said.

“We understood that she was experiencing some pressure. It was not an easy time being in detention,” the foreign minister continued. “We don’t know what happened precisely, but the recorded tape that you have seen … her concern about children, it’s quite understandable, I believe.”

Speaking with Current Time shortly after the appearance of Tsikhanouskaya’s video about ending the protests, Veranika Tsapkala said that she does not doubt that the candidate and her family were threatened.

"She is a strong woman. I admire her, and what she has done over the past three months. Not everyone would dare to do it and would be able to do it.”

Threats aimed at the children of those who oppose the government are standard for the Lukashenka administration, she alleged.

“Therefore, in no case should Svyatlana's decision be condemned,” Tsapkala said.

As Belarus’ election protests continue, it appears that few Belarusians do.