VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Now in its 19th day, Belarus's political crisis has slipped toward a potentially more dangerous phase with President Vladimir Putin signaling the possibility of deploying a Russian security force to help buttress Alyaksandr Lukashenka's grip on power.
Deploying Russian forces in her country would be a mistake, said Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the self-exiled former presidential candidate who has become an unlikely leader of the Belarusian opposition.
"This is our internal problem, an internal issue that Belarusians must resolve with the Belarusian government," Tsikhanouskaya told RFE/RL.
Tsikhanouskaya spoke with RFE/RL on August 28 from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where she fled amid threats to her family.
Her husband Syarhey, a potential challenger to Lukashenka in the August 9 presidential election, had been arrested before the vote and remains in police custody, reportedly in a jail on Minsk's outskirts. A proficient English speaker who previously was a stay-at-home mother, Tsikhanouskaya took up the mantle from her husband after he was jailed.
Then, with opposition protests mounting over allegations the vote was rigged in Lukashenka's favor, Tsikhanouskaya joined with prominent cultural figures to create the opposition Coordination Council.
Its stated aim is to negotiate with Lukashenka's government on a new election, the release of detained protesters, and, potentially, the president's departure from power.
But Lukashenka has dug in his heels. In recent days, prosecutors have announced a criminal investigation of the council -- jailing two of its leaders who remained in Minsk and calling in other members for questioning -- including the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.
In towns and cities across Belarus, the streets have been packed with tens of thousands of protesters – and possibly hundreds of thousands at the largest gathering in Minsk. The outpouring of opposition has become the biggest challenge to Lukashenka's 26-year rule.
In her RFE/RL interview, Tsikhanouskaya again called for Lukashenka to step aside, calling it a "worthy" decision to close out his tenure.
"It would be very worthy for him to be just the first president, who ruled for a long time and then resigned at the request of the people, and not to turn his departure into bloody massacres, not to cause hatred of his people," she said.
While defying the popular calls for a new election that is free and fair, Lukashenka has also signaled the possibility of a harsher approach toward demonstrators.
Russia, Belarus's most important economic and strategic partner, has been closely watching the upheaval. Kremlin planners are wary of a repeat of what happened in Ukraine in 2014 when mass protests led to the ouster of the pro-Russian president there.
Underscoring the Kremlin's potential involvement in the crisis, Lukashenka and Putin have held at least five phone calls since the election.
In an interview broadcast by Russian state TV on August 27, Putin revealed that Russia has set up a special security force at the request of Lukashenka -- the strongest signal to date that Moscow might physically intervene in Belarus.
"We also agreed that it will not be used unless the situation gets out of control," Putin said.
Tsikhanouskaya suggested that Putin's message was clear. But she insisted bringing in Russian forces would be unnecessary. And she warned of the possibility of "provocations" -- with authorities trying to intentionally provoke violence in order to create a pretext for imposing harsh measures.
"There will be no reasons for bringing in some kind of 'help', riot police or someone else, because we have purely peaceful protests," she said. "Among the Belarusian people, no one wants a violent resolution to the issue."
Lukashenka, she said, should leave office willingly and without violence. But she also suggested that there will be consequences for the officials who directed the violence and repressions that targeted protesters.
"Unfortunately, the authorities have committed a crime that will not be erased from memory," she said.
"Belarusians are not vindictive," she said. "If, it seems to me, it's possible to leave with dignity, then perhaps this will be a very great mitigating circumstance for [Lukashenka's] fate."
"I would like it all to end beautifully," Tsikhanouskaya said. "I do not want to plunge into the abyss."