MINSK -- Belarusian opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has filed an official complaint against the results of the August 9 presidential election, saying her compatriots "will never accept" the leadership of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka again.
Demonstrations and strikes have erupted across Belarus over the past 13 days in protest at what many have called a "rigged" presidential election in which Lukashenka claimed a landslide reelection victory -- posing the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule.
"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," Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on August 21 at her first press conference since fleeing to Lithuania last week after a disputed presidential election.
Tsikhanouskaya told reporters in Vilnius that she plans to return to Belarus "when I feel safe there."
Tsikhanouskaya's lawyer Maksim Znak on August 21 filed a complaint with the Belarusian Supreme Court requesting the election be ruled invalid.
"A complaint has been submitted. A decision on when to start proceedings is due within three days," Znak, a leading member of the opposition's Coordination Council, said on August 21.
Znak and Syarhey Dyleuski, another member of the council, were summoned for questioning on August 21 at the headquarters of the Investigative Committee in a criminal case accusing the council of trying to seize power.
Dozens of supporters accompanied them.
Znak said on entering that he feared he might be arrested. But when he emerged later, he said he had "productive discussions" and would get back to work.
In a video address released earlier in the day, Tsikhanouskaya called on workers in the country's state-owned factories and companies to continue striking despite "intimidation" from the authorities.
"If we all stand together, this regime will not stand a chance," the 37-year-old political novice added.
Many of the country's biggest and most important state companies have seen work stoppages, as workers have joined thousands of anti-government demonstrators.
But addressing workers in the Dzerzhinsk region, Lukashenka said the protests "should not worry you" and accused the United States of "directing" demonstrators.
"This is my problem, which I must resolve and which we are resolving. And believe me, in the coming days it will be resolved," he said, according to state news agency BelTA.
Tsikhanouskaya ran in the August 9 election after other potential candidates, including her husband, were jailed or exiled prior to the election during a crackdown on the opposition.
Official results gave her about 10 percent of the vote, but she claims to have actually received between 60 and 70 percent.
Tsikhanouskaya has joined with some strike leaders, opposition activists, and cultural figures to form a Coordination Council aimed at negotiating a transition of power with the Belarusian government.
But Lukashenka has refused and rejected demands for a new presidential election, instead accusing the council of plotting a coup.
Two leading members of the Coordination Council -- Maksim Znak and Syarhey Dyleuski -- were summoned by investigators on August 21 for questioning, a day after the Prosecutor-General's Office opened a criminal inquiry against the council’s founders on charges of threatening national security.
The council members rejected the accusations, insisting that their actions have been in full compliance with Belarusian law.
The popular protests that erupted after the August 9 vote gave Lukashenka a fresh six-year term have turned into the biggest challenge to his 26 years in office.
About 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured, and three people died in a crackdown on protesters. Some of those who have been released since have complained of beatings and terrible conditions while in detention.
Unfazed by the pressure, thousands of demonstrators on August 21 formed "chains of solidarity" across the capital before marching to the central Independence Square. Drivers honked and slowed down to block traffic in a show of solidarity.
The UN Human Rights Office raised alarm at allegations of the “large-scale torture and ill-treatment of people including of journalists and particularly alarmingly of children, during arrests and in detention" and called for objective investigations into the claims.
"We are particularly worried that the fate and whereabouts of at least eight people remain unknown," the office said in a statement.
The European Union has said it does not recognize the result of the election because of irregularities and will soon impose sanctions on Lukashenka's government.
In a statement on August 21, the EU spokeswoman for foreign policy and security affairs urged Belarusian authorities to drop the criminal case against the Coordination Council and to instead "engage in a dialogue in view of moving towards a peaceful way out of the current crisis."
The previous day, EU Council President Charles Michel tweeted that he held another phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is Lukashenka's closest ally, and told him that the only solution to the Belarus crisis was "political inclusive dialogue & a peaceful and democratic process."
During the call, Michel said the bloc's goals for the crisis were to stop violence against protesters and ensure that the country does not slide into chaos, according to a senior EU official.
"Nobody wants a repeat of what happened in Ukraine," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"The EU is seeking to support stability, talks between authorities, the opposition and the broader society, economic prosperity, without tilting the geopolitical balance for Belarus between the EU and Russia."
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Belarusian counterpart, Uladzimer Makey, emphasized in a phone call that resolving the crisis in Belarus "did not require foreign interference," the Russian Foreign Ministry said on August 21.
"It was pointed out that foreign players needed to respect Belarus's sovereignty and independence and put an end to attempts to provoke confrontation within Belarusian society and undermine efforts to improve the situation," a statement said.
Makey issued his own statement, saying that EU sanctions would be viewed as unfriendly actions that damage the sovereignty of the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on August 20 that the United States remains deeply concerned by "serious flaws" in Belarus's election, adding that Washington was in support of international efforts to independently look into reported electoral irregularities and human rights abuses surrounding the vote.
Pompeo also urged the Belarusian government to “actively engage" Belarusian society, including through the Coordination Council.”