Svetlana Tikhanovskaya looked nervous as she read out a prepared statement calling on her supporters to end their protests against Belarus’s contested presidential election.
“The people of Belarus have made their choice.” the opposition leader said in a video filmed only hours after she had rejected official results which gave strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko a landslide victory in Sunday’s elections.
The volte face shocked Ms Tikhanovskaya’s supporters, who likened the performance to a hostage video. They said it had clearly been filmed under duress. The video was released on the pro-government Telegram channel.
“No person in their right mind believes that Tikhanovskaya recorded this video voluntarily. It’s just one piece of evidence of what methods [the Lukashenko regime] uses to break individuals and the spirit of the people,” Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda said.
Ms Tikhanovskaya later fled to Lithuania on Tuesday, bringing an end to an unlikely presidential campaign that provoked the largest protests in Belarus in a decade.
The 37-year-old former English teacher was a stay-at-home mother until a few months ago, when authorities jailed her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, who had made his name on YouTube. They barred him and two other opposition candidates from the election.
Cities across the former Soviet nation of 9.5m have been convulsed by clashes with police since officials apportioned 80 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s election to Mr Lukashenko. The opposition and western governments say the result was neither free nor fair.
Ms Tikhanovskaya cited isolated results from several local election commissions to claim she had won “70-80 per cent” of the vote. But when she went to file a complaint with the election commission in Minsk, officials held her captive for several hours, according to Maria Kolesnikova, one of the other two women who led her campaign.
While waiting outside in the corridor, Ms Kolesnikova saw men she claimed were “high-ranking members of the security services” carrying video equipment enter the room. “I can’t even imagine what making that decision cost her,” Ms Kolesnikova told independent news site Tut.by.
“When you’ve been in a room for three hours with members of the security services and you have children, your husband is being prosecuted, you have friends and supporters in prison and Svetlana hasn’t heard from them in several days [ . . .] when your whole entourage and family are being held hostage, it’s very difficult to make any statements not under pressure,” she added.
After she was allowed to run in her husband’s stead, Ms Tikhanovskaya joined with two women representing the other barred candidates to form the biggest challenge yet to Mr Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
Mr Lukashenko initially appeared to have underestimated their appeal, saying that “society has not matured enough for a woman” to become president, before changing tack to dismiss them as “poor little girls” under the control of unnamed foreign “puppetmasters”.
But their youthful energy — characterised by their signature gestures of a peace sign, raised fist, and hands folded into a heart — and pledge to hold new elections within six months helped them capitalise on anger at Mr Lukashenko’s refusal to impose social distancing restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
“What did we hear from our TV screens? He insulted people who died from coronavirus, he called masks muzzles, like people talk to dogs,” Ms Tikhanovskaya told the FT in an interview last month. “This boorish behaviour opened more and more people’s eyes: how can you put up with this?”
In last month’s interview Ms Tikhanovskaya hinted at the pressure she was under that may have eventually convinced her to flee Belarus on Tuesday.
“It’s very painful for me that my husband’s in jail and I’m not with my children, I had to take them out [of Belarus],” she said. Ms Tikhanovskaya claimed her husband was regularly placed in “horrifying conditions” in solitary confinement, where guards wake him up 10 times each night to prevent him from sleeping. “I understand that it’s pressure on me and on him. But what else can we do? There’s no way back,” she said.