VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — The former English teacher who ran for president as an opposition candidate in Belarus said Tuesday that she thinks the country's authoritarian government will eventually succumb to public pressure and agree to enter discussions on a peaceful transition of power.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania after challenging the official election results that gave Belarus’ incumbent leader 80% of the vote to her 10%, said the Belarusian people are ready to fight for their rights and the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko should not count on cold weather ending protests against his reelection.
“This government must understand that things will never be the same. People want changes," Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius.“They will not live with this president. They will not obey his orders any longer.”
Lukashenko won his sixth term in office in the Aug. 9 election, which opposition supporters and some European governments believe was rigged. But despite ruling Belarus with an iron fist for 26 years and several days of police crackdowns on post-election demonstrations, the president has been unable to silence protesters demanding his resignation.
Tsikhanouskaya said the government “will be forced” to have a dialogue to address the dissatisfaction “if it doesn’t want to the see the country falling into economic and political abyss.”
Tsikhanouskaya's allies established a council after she left Belarus with the goal of negotiating either a transfer of power or a new presidential election. Lukashenko has rejected the offer, and his government last week resumed detaining protesters, jailing activists and threatening the opposition with criminal prosecution.
The anti-government rallies, now in their fourth week, continued Tuesday with students gathering outside universities to march across Minsk. Tsikhanouskaya said she believes that physical discomfort will not get in the way of the protests as the weather deteriorates come fall.
“The protests may turn into something entirely new. Our people are very creative and well-organized. Some of them are singing in shopping malls. Students organize things here and there, without any coordination," she said. "Maybe there will be no demonstrations under torrential rains, but protests will go on and on." the opposition leader said.
Tsikhanouskaya, 37, entered the presidential race after her husband, a blogger who had planned to challenge Lukashenko, was jailed in May. She sent the couple's children to Lithuania before last month's election and joined them there as police were detaining thousands of election protesters.
“I hear a lot about parents in Belarus who decided to give up on schools which were used to forge elections during the vote and are taking kids somewhere else,: she told the AP. "They do not want children to study there anymore. This is a very strong signal of people’s mood not to have anything in common with this fraud.”
She told the AP that being abroad now helps her to do things for her country that would have been impossible back home.
“I will return when I feel safe there, when negotiations start, when political prisoners are released. Those will be the signs for me to come back safely,” she said.
Follow AP's coverage of Belarus at https://apnews.com/Belarus