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Monday, August 31, 2020

Belarus opposition leader: Dozens disappeared after protests


They are Europe's "disappeared."

Dozens of people arrested while protesting the Belarus presidential election have vanished and remain unaccounted for — and the EU should not forget them, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Monday.

In an interview with POLITICO, Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania in fear for her own safety, described her missing supporters as political prisoners made to disappear by the regime of strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who is still clinging to power despite continuing widespread protests and labor strikes over the disputed August 9 election.

"What I want to tell is that a lot of people in Belarus now are political prisoners," Tikhanovskaya said, speaking by videoconference. "They just are in jail without any court, and they are in there only for their, I don't know, for their wish to talk about what's going on in Belarus, about their desire to live in a free country.

"After the demonstrations," she said in halting but clear English, "we still don't know where about 70 people are and they are miss[ing] and it's a very big problem for us because it shouldn't be in a European country in the 21st century that people are miss[ing] and authorities don't do anything just to find them.

"Everybody has seen all the violence that our authorities have committed, our police committed toward all these peaceful people," Tikhanovskaya said. "And not one criminal case was organized to investigate this, you know these crimes, as if it's normal. No, it's not normal and cases should be opened against every policeman that beat these people."

Tikhanovskaya spoke to POLITICO a day after tens of thousands of people again took to the streets in Minsk, and Lukashenko deployed large contingents of riot police, and cordoned off key buildings, including the residence of the embattled leader who was celebrating his 66th birthday.

She expressed confidence that the protests, along with labor strikes, would continue until Lukashenko relinquished power, and she suggested that his opponents were prepared for a long struggle that could take on new forms.

"Strikes are extremely important and also strikes can have different forms," she said. "There are many ways, and it is not only through demonstrations.

"I know that this will not stop," she added. "You should understand ... we woke up ... we will not accept him anymore."

In the interview, Tikhanovskaya restated her commitment to leading the country only to new, free elections, and said she had no plan to serve long-term as president. She said that the release of political prisoners, including her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, as well as the replacement of the country's entire central election commission remained top preconditions for a new vote.

She acknowledged that she is now a "national leader" and "I can consider myself to be a national elected president," but she said, "I don't feel myself comfortable in this position.

"I understand that people voted for me," she said. "But they voted for me not as president, they voted for me as a person who will lead the country to new elections.

"I am not going to be involved in new elections and I don't have a right to participate in them because I promised my people that I will not take part," she said. "My mission will be over ... when we will organize these elections."

She added that it would be up to her husband to decide if he still wanted to run for president after being released from prison and she said she was not sure that he had full information about the recent developments in the country given his incarceration.

Throughout the interview, Tikhanovskaya sought to portray the protests as a domestic political issue without a larger geopolitical narrative pitting Russia and former Soviet territories against the West, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and others have tried to assert.

She also expressed relatively little concern about Russian intervention and seemed to go out of her way to avoid provoking the Kremlin, even refraining from criticizing the Russian government over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption protester who has become a nemesis of President Vladimir Putin.

"Of course we are against any such cases, any violence, any poisoning of people, it shouldn't be solved like this, it's absolutely inhuman," she said of Navalny, who is currently receiving medical treatment in Germany. "But I can't, you know, talk about this, because there should be real investigation in this case. And I can't blame anybody without investigation."

Tikhanovskaya said it was up to foreign political leaders levying sanctions against Belarus, including EU leaders, to decide if Lukashenko should personally face sanctions. And she paused for a long while when asked if Lukashenko should be brought to justice before an international tribunal in The Hague.

"You know, I think I am not ready to answer this question openly because I think that at the moment at least, at the moment, it's the responsibility of the Belarusian people to stand for their freedom, for their rights. And you know I have to think over your question, because I never thought about this problem from this point of view. Hmm. Hmm. Hmm, I will think it over."

She said the decision by Lukashenko's regime to strip the credentials of many foreign journalists was indicative of the government's effort to hide evidence of police violence and other abuses. And she said opposition forces would remain peaceful and were willing to negotiate with anyone in a position to bring about a new round of free, fair elections.

She also defended her decision to leave for Lithuania, saying it was necessary not only for her personal safety but has allowed her to communicate with international leaders and publicize the plight of her supporters. Still, despite expressing gratitude for the support of outside powers, she urged that Belarus be allowed to stand on its own.

"We are peaceful people and we don't want anything except to solve this problem," she said. "We want these people to go away and to build our country with a new president. It's not about geopolitics. It's our internal affair and we ask for respect of our sovereignty. We ask every country — but in case we need any kind of help in these negotiations, in case we need mediators, we ask to just be ready to help us."



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