Belarus opposition leader a victim of tactics from the Lukashenko playbook

By Andrew Roth in Moscow

It looked like a hostage video. Reading from a piece of paper, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader, told supporters in a subdued voice not to join mass protests in Belarus or “put their lives at risk”.

Hours later, she was in Lithuania, implying she had faced an ultimatum: “God forbid you ever have to face the choice that I faced.”

For Tikhanovskaya, a reluctant candidate in Belarus’s elections, the pressure points are almost too many to name: her husband, a popular YouTuber, has been in jail since May. Her children have been sent abroad after receiving threats during the campaign. And her close friend and campaign manager, Maria Moroz, was detained on the eve of the elections.

Vocal critics of the government say they are sure she was blackmailed, pointing to a trend of putting pressure on opposition politicians and their families stretching back more than a decade.

“While she was traveling around Belarus, the whole powerful KGB … was working and thinking how they can put pressure on her to manipulate, speculate, confuse her, what points they can touch and how they can break her,” said Franak Viačorka, a prominent Belarusian journalist and digital media strategist who works for the US Agency for Global Media.

Arrested in 2010 after protests against the president, Alexander Lukashenko, Viačorka said that police had confronted him with copies of his computer files and financial documents, and told him that they’d been provided by his then girlfriend.

In a famous case in 2010, the government signalled it could take custody of the three-year-old child of the opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov after both he and his wife were jailed by the government.

“For many people who are in politics for a long time they’re much better prepared,” said Viačorka, a filmmaker and former creative director for RFE/RL’s Belarus service. “But for the neophytes managing this campaign, this is all very new.”

It was the excitement over a new set of politicians that helped set this campaign apart, with a trio of female faces led by Tikhanovskaya who appealed to a different kind of politics from that under Lukashenko’s 26 years of rule.

Police in Minsk use flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to disperse protesters
Police in Minsk use flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to disperse protesters. Photograph: AP

But the election results, the heavy-handed crackdown and the use of pressure points have all looked familiar. Hundreds of family members gathered at the city jail on Wednesday to plead for information about relatives missing since Sunday. More than 6,000 have officially been detained, and opposition members say the number is far higher.

Veronika Tsepkalo, an ally of Tikhanovskaya’s, said in an interview on Tuesday that both she and her husband had fled the country after being warned they could be detained. “Public people from our campaign are in hiding. They’re all worried about being arrested,” she said.

In a video posted that evening, she accused the government of using family members as blackmail in an attempt to shut them up.

“I know what kind of dirty and nasty methods the authorities are using to put pressure on us,” she said. “They use children, husbands, relatives and those close to us to distance us or discredit us in the eyes of the public.”

Maria Kolesnikova
Maria Kolesnikova: ‘When all those around you and your family are hostages, it is very difficult not to make statements under pressure.’ Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

The pressure on Tikhanovskaya is probably continuing. Maria Kolesnikova, the only one of the trio of female politicians to remain in Belarus, said on Wednesday evening she still has not been in touch with Tikhanovskaya, more than a day after the opposition candidate revealed that she had left the country.

“When all those around you and your family are hostages, it is very difficult not to make statements under pressure,” Kolesnikova said on Tuesday.

In her public statements, Tikhanovskaya has only alluded to the ultimatum she faced. She said in a video that “children are the only thing that matter”, but was also said to have left the country in exchange for the release of Moroz.

An aide, Olga Kovalkova, said: “Svetlana had no choice. The most important thing is that she is free and alive. She left together with Maria Moroz. But part of her team remains a hostage.”