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Belarusian Opposition Leader Says Her Country's President Cheated In Election

NOEL KING, HOST:

Today, a woman alleging a stolen election will tell her story to the United Nations. She describes herself as a housewife. She challenged the leader of Belarus. It's a strategically vital country on the map between NATO allies and Russia. She says President Alexander Lukashenko cheated to stay in power. And she talked to us before addressing the U.N. by video.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We found Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in exile. She's just outside Belarus staying at a friend's house in the capital of neighboring Lithuania.

SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I left Belarus because I didn't feel myself safe there.

INSKEEP: She is 37 years old. She spoke with us while wearing a black vest and a white turtleneck, which we mention because white is the color of her political movement. She often wears it. The story of her campaign begins with her husband. Sergei Tikhanovsky is a political activist noted for his youtube videos.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: He was a rather famous person in Belarus as he was showing the truth about our country. He was going around Belarus and talking to different people. And he - a couple of times, he was jailed for his intention to tell the truth.

INSKEEP: President Alexander Lukashenko is the authoritarian ruler of a former Soviet Republic. He's an old-time Soviet soldier and politico. He's held power for 26 years. Freedom House, a U.S. group, rates Belarus among the least free places on Earth - more open than Iran but a little less than communist Vietnam. In legislative elections last year, candidates supporting Lukashenko happened to win every single seat. This summer, a presidential election was scheduled and Tsikhanouskaya's husband wanted to run.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: The day when candidates for presidency prints documents for registration into election commission, he was jailed. He was in jail at that moment. And his documents were not accepted.

INSKEEP: Because he was briefly in custody, he could not sign those documents. So his wife, a former teacher who was at home with the kids, tried to think of something.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I just needed to support him somehow.

INSKEEP: Though he was not available to sign papers to run for president, she was.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I didn't have another choice just to support him at that moment and I was registered.

INSKEEP: Somewhat to her surprise, the government let her run.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: They were sure that nobody would support me because it was my husband who was famous, not me. I was just housewife. And when they saw that people support me, they put my husband in jail again. So I continued this election campaign because I just understood that I can't betray all those people who believed in my husband, who believed in him. And afterwards, they believed in me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: Now, we mentioned that white is the color of the opposition movement in Belarus. When campaigning, Tsikhanouskaya often wore a white suit on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: She said she's not really qualified to run the country. So her platform was simple - free political prisoners, change the constitution and then hold new, free elections.

I feel that you're essentially saying we want democracy. Is that a way to summarize your platform?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Yeah, need more democracy.

INSKEEP: Was your campaign covered at all on state TV or other state-controlled media?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: No, never, as if there was no election campaign at all.

INSKEEP: On election night, her supporters were able to monitor some polling stations, but she says police drove them away from others. The United States says the vote was not free and fair. We're going to warn you now that some vulgar language is coming your way, which will be over in about a minute. We are playing it because it is the authentic expression of a political leader.

How were the election results, the official results, announced on election night?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I think about 10 o'clock in the evening, the chief of election claimed that 80% was for Mr. Lukashenko and 10% for Tsikhanouskaya.

INSKEEP: Do you find that result to be absolutely impossible?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: Of course. You know, if they showed, for example, that Lukashenko got - I don't know - 53%, it would be enough for him to be winner. We could believe in the result, you know, just 53 and Tsikhanouskaya, for example, 46. But everybody knew that 80% is absolutely bullshit. And, of course, it caused real protest in people because they knew who they voted for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

INSKEEP: Now what has the opposition been doing in recent days inside Belarus?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: OK. First of all, if you don't mind, wouldn't you please call us opposition? Because we are not opposition anymore. We are the majority.

INSKEEP: Is it a non-negotiable demand that Lukashenko must leave office?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I have to repeat, people don't trust him anymore. They don't want him anymore. And they will not have any opportunity for him to stay in power.

INSKEEP: Though it's not yet clear what would force him to give up power. Major powers around the world have taken an interest in the disputed election in Belarus. One of them is neighboring Russia; another is the United States. Steve Biegun, the State Department's second-highest ranking diplomat, recently traveled to meet the presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Biegun then traveled to Russia, and a U.S. official tells us that Biegun cautioned them sternly against intervening in Belarus.

NPR's Lucian Kim is covering the great power maneuvering from Moscow. And, Lucian, does Russia's Vladimir Putin support Alexander Lukashenko, the incumbent?

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Well, the first thing we need to understand is that Belarus is really a classic client state of Russia. In the past, it's been highly dependent on cheap Russian crude oil, which it could refine into oil products and sell at a premium. Now, in recent years, Putin has demanded something in return. He wants to tighten Russia's integration with Belarus. And Putin has been taking away those oil subsidies and really putting Lukashenko under a lot of pressure. The two leaders actually have a very testy relationship. But right now, we see Putin throwing all his weight behind Lukashenko, promising military and financial aid. And the price is going to be very high for Lukashenko. He will now have no choice but to agree to even closer cooperation with Russia in the future.

INSKEEP: So Putin is using this to get leverage on Lukashenko. Does the U.S. have any leverage to encourage a change of government?

KIM: Well, that's the thing. As Lukashenko was being pressured by Putin, he was actually reaching out to the U.S. as a sort of counterbalance. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Lukashenko earlier this year, and the first American ambassador in more than a decade is supposed to arrive in Minsk later this year. But now with the U.S. and especially the European Union criticizing the Belarusian regime, threatening to sanction it, Lukashenko has really run back into Putin's arms.

INSKEEP: Wow. Lucian, thank you very much for the insights, really appreciate it.

KIM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow monitoring the disputed election in Belarus.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOKIMONSTA'S "LOVELY SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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