- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Belarus’s pro-democracy movement will not subside until the longtime authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is driven from office, the woman who says she beat him in the country’s recent presidential vote vowed this week.

“The Belarusian people will not stop until Lukashenko resigns,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition presidential candidate who fled the country days after the hotly disputed Aug. 9 election, told a Washington think tank this week.

“The protest mood is so strong that even the brutal beatings and the torture are not able to destroy them,” Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said at a virtual forum hosted by the Atlantic Council on Monday.

“There is no way back,” she said. “Lukashenko must go.”

Her comments come amid mounting speculation over the fate of Mr. Lukashenko’s hold on power, where clashes between protesters and security forces have carried on for months while the U.S., the European Union and nearby Russia vie for influence.

Hundreds of protesters were arrested recently in Minsk, where Mr. Lukashenko made headlines recently by saying he would be open to leaving the presidency he’s held for more than 26 years, but only after the country approves a new constitution.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, who ran for president against Mr. Lukashenko after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular opposition blogger, was jailed, said she believes Mr. Lukashenko is biding time in the hope the protest movement will die out.

“I don’t think that Lukashenko will step down voluntarily. This is a hypocritical statement on behalf of the man who consolidated authoritarian power back in the 1990s after he conducted an unconstitutional referendum,” she said Monday. “He practically gave himself unlimited powers. So by talking about the new constitution, Lukashenko intends to buy himself time to justify his staying in power.”

“Historically, it has been quite a typical strategy for authoritarian leaders who are reluctant to give up on power,” she added. “There is no trust in Lukashenko’s promises about the constitution and new elections. All his promises are fake and the Belarusian people know this.”

“Belarusians are prepared to protest for as long as it is necessary,” Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said. “I’m sure that we will reach the main goal to conduct new presidential elections.”

While Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun recently said the Lukashenko government “must release political prisoners, journalists, and all those unjustly detained,” Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said this week the U.S. should also “demand new and fair elections” be held in Belarus.

In her remarks Monday, the opposition leader endorsed a bill in the House of Representatives that would expand the president’s power to impost sanctions on the Lukashenko government and authorize aid to Belarus citizens fighting internet censorship or who have been forced to flee because of the political crackdown.

“Belarusians have been living under state terror for months,” she said. “The price they are paying for their peaceful fight is too high. We are asking the West to act fast.”

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