Early on August 11, it became known that Belarusian opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya had left Belarus and was in Lithuania.
In a video released later the same day, she read a statement in which she urged Belarusians not to risk their lives by resisting the authorities. She also said that the people had “made their choice” – an ambiguous remark that could allow the government to claim that she conceded an election she had said a day earlier that she had won:
The Russian website Mediazona cited anonymous sources as saying the video had been recorded on August 10, before Tsikhanouskaya left Belarus. And Tsikhanouskaya campaign aide Maryya Kalesnikava said the video was shot in the office of Central Election Commission head Lydzia Yarmoshina.
As backers and other Belarusians worried about the circumstances of Tsikhanouskaya’s departure, observers puzzled over what impact it might have on the mounting unrest in Belarus, which has been noted for its decentralized nature from the beginning. Tsikhanouskaya always insisted that she was “a symbol” of the people’s discontent, rather than the leader of a political movement. She disavowed any ambition to be president and promised only to hold a new, free, and fair election if she defeated incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who electoral officials claim won more than 80 percent of the vote.
“She has been an ideal symbol of change,” Minsk-based journalist and political analyst Ihar Ilyash told Current Time. “For that reason, it doesn’t matter what she is doing at this specific moment…. As a symbol, she fulfilled her function flawlessly. She fulfilled that function and will continue to do so. The people are simply sick of Lukashenka.”
Tsikhanouskaya’s press secretary, Hanna Krasulina, issued a statement saying the candidate’s departure “doesn’t change anything.”
“She did all that she could, educated and inspired people, achieved victory in the election,” Krasulina said. "Now the people are going to act without her. They are not protesting for Tsikhanouskaya but for themselves, for their families, and for their nation.”
Even before it was known that Tsikhanouskaya had left the country, Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Navosha noted that she was under “enormous pressure” from “a harsh police state.”
“Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has conducted herself extremely nobly and has done all that she could do,” he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service about the 37-year-old former English teacher and political novice who entered the race after her husband, popular vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was arrested. “Now it is up to Belarusian society to either achieve or not achieve its goals.”
Tsikhanouskaya left the country shortly after she had a private conversation with Belarusian security officials while she was presenting an official complaint to the Central Election Commission about alleged falsification of the August 9 presidential election.
Although the precise circumstances of her departure remain unknown, past evidence strongly suggests that Lukashenka’s government plays hardball in such circumstances. In the run-up to the 2001 presidential campaign, as many as 30 people connected with the opposition “disappeared” under Lukashenka and there was some documentary evidence that the president had ordered the formation of a hit squad for eliminating opposition figures. The mystery of the disappearances has never been solved.
WATCH: Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya talked to Current Time on August 3:
After the 2010 election, Lukashenka’s security forces arrested hundreds of opposition protesters and seven of the candidates who opposed Lukashenka in the election.
Tsikhanouskaya’s husband was arrested in Minsk in June and remains in government custody. In July, Tsikhanouskaya moved her children out of Belarus following threats against them. About a dozen members of her staff were arrested during the campaign and many of them also remain in custody.
Earlier, Tsikhanouskaya had issued a brief, emotional video in which she announced that she had left Belarus and ended with the assertion that “children are the most important thing in life”:
In a post on Facebook, Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats wrote that “we can only guess what threats were made against her, her husband, and the head of her elections staff...during the seven hours that she was kept at the Belarusian Central Election Commission.”
From the beginning, the Belarusian unrest supported Tsikhanouskaya but was not guided by her. Protests popped up in towns and cities across the country and lively discussions of what to do next were held in various chat forums on the Telegram social-media platform.
“Internet sites in Belarus are almost completely blocked; even pro-government sites can’t be opened,” said Roman Protasevich, the Warsaw-based editor of the Nexta Telegram channel, told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “Essentially, the only thing that is working without using a VPN or a proxy is Telegram. It continues working.”
“Plans [of action] arise based on what people themselves decide,” he continued. “There is a large number of internal chats, including chats on our channels where they really have created entire networks. Many of them have more than 10,000 participants, and people really are trying to coordinate themselves. And gradually, brick by brick, plans come together.
"The main idea now for many people is the decentralization of the protests. People understand that this is the most effective way considering that the police habitually gravitate toward one point.”
On August 11, an announcement was posted on one of Nexta’s Telegram channels calling for an immediate general strike. The statement issued three demands: that Tsikhanouskaya be declared the winner of the August 9 election; that all political prisoners be released; and that a “new, honest” election be held.
“Our polling showed that more than two-thirds of Belarusians are ready to leave their workplaces today in order to bury this regime once and for all,” the statement said.
The statement also directed supporters not to Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign but to a trio of Telegram channels.
The opposition in Belarus is keenly aware that after the disputed 2010 election, the security forces quickly put down a massive demonstration in the capital, Minsk, while the rest of the country largely watched. Lukashenka subsequently bragged that it only took 7 1/2 minutes to quell the unrest.
Hence, the decentralization strategy.
“It seems that the protesters don’t have a clear plan,” said Belarusian political analyst Artsyom Shraybman. “When there is no plan, protests often die out…. There is no plan for victory yet. But then again, no revolution was ever carried out according to a plan.”