Belarusians ‘will never accept’ Alexander Lukashenko as president, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Friday as she called for ‘free, fair and transparent elections’ to take place as soon as possible.
Speaking for the first time from exile in Lithuania, where she fled following her loss to Lukashenko in an August 9 vote widely viewed as rigged, Tikhanovskaya called for political prisoners to be released and for violence against protesters to stop.
As she spoke, thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Minsk to call for Lukashenko’s resignation, in the 12th straight day of demonstrations since the election result was announced.
Lukashenko has rejected calls to re-run the vote, which he claimed to have won with 80 per cent support, telling striking factory workers: ‘You will have to kill me first’.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has made her first speech from exile in Lithuania, saying the country will ‘never accept’ Alexander Lukashenko as leader
Tikhanovskaya called for violence against protesters (pictured in Minsk today) to stop, political prisoners to be released, and ‘free and fair’ elections to be held as soon as possible
At a televised press conference, Tikhanovskaya said: ‘Belarusians are behind bars today, they are prevented from demonstrating. People are in prison simply because they dared to dream of a different country
‘Our objective is very simple. We do not wish to live any longer in fear. We want for everyone to have a right to live in the world, to not be beaten up in the street, the right not to be imprisoned without a trial and to have free and fair elections.
‘We Belarusians are peace-loving and peaceful people, but anyone who thinks that we are lacking in determination is sorely mistaken.
‘You only have to look at history and the ordeals of our ancestors. Today Belarus has woken up. Hundreds of thousands of people are coming out on to the streets of the country and are prepared to say ‘resign.’
‘Thousands of workers have announced they are on strike in order to say ‘enough is enough’. Enough lying, intimidating, anarchy, and violence.
Protesters have been on the streets around Belarus for almost two weeks following an August 9 election that is widely viewed as rigged (pictured, protests today)
A woman holds up a sign reading Love is Stronger Than Fear outside the offices of the Belarusian Investigative Committee which is accused of persecuting protesters
‘Violence must stop. Political prisoners must be released. And elections must be held anew. Free, fair and transparent. This is what the people of Belarus are demanding, and they must be heard.’
Tikhanovskaya added that she is planning to return to Belarus, but only ‘when I feel safe there’.
The political novice – a school teacher who stepped in to battle Lukashenko after her husband was jailed – declined to answer questions about her personal safety or about what compelled her to leave Belarus.
Supporters and the Lithuanian government have said she had little choice but to leave after coming under intense pressure from the authorities during a meeting at the Central Election Commission in Minsk.
‘It should be clear to the president that there is a need for change. I hope that good sense prevails and the people will be heard and there will be new elections,’ Tikhanovskaya told reporters.
Lukashenko has rejected all calls to re-run the elections, vowing ‘you will have to kill me first’ at a rally in front of striking tractor workers
Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has inspired unprecedented mass protests in the former Soviet republic against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
Asked about Russian support for Lukashenko, she said: ‘I call on all countries of the world to respect the sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus.’
‘We don’t want to live in fear and falsehoods any more,’ she said, calling for striking workers to liaise with the coordination council she has appointed to organise pro-democracy protests.
‘The creation of the coordination council is aimed at negotiating a peaceful handover of power,’ she said.
Belarus on Thursday opened a criminal probe into the opposition council, saying it was an unconstitutional attempt to topple Lukashenko.
The EU on Friday demanded that Belarus halt the investigation, accusing it of ‘intimidation’.