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Fallout Continues After Belarus' Alexander Lukashenko Wins 6th Term

NOEL KING, HOST:

This next story starts with a woman whose husband is in jail. This woman runs for president against a man known as Europe's last dictator. And when he declares himself the winner, she flees the country. Who is she? Svetlana Tikhanovskaya - she was an opposition candidate in Sunday's presidential election in Belarus.

And NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim has been following this very interesting story. Hey, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Who is this woman, and why did she leave Belarus?

KIM: Well, her name is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She's a complete political novice who decided to run after her husband, who's a very popular blogger in Belarus, was jailed and prevented from running himself. She's an English translator professionally and says she was never interested in politics. But she still drew these huge crowds around Belarus and generated a lot of enthusiasm.

After the election, she held a press conference and said she wasn't planning on going anywhere. Then that night, she went missing. And finally, on Tuesday morning, the foreign minister of neighboring Lithuania tweeted that she was safe and sound in his country. She later posted a video in which she was visibly and audibly distraught.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: She's saying that some people will understand her and others will condemn her for it but she had to make what she calls a tough decision. It appears that she left Belarus under duress. As you mentioned, her husband is in jail, and she's already sent her two children out of the country for their own safety.

KING: The person she was running against, Belarus' current president, Lukashenko, he says he's won. He's been in power for 26 years, and people are now protesting the fact that he says he's won. Why are they protesting?

KIM: Well, the protesters are angry for several reasons. For one, as you pointed out, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for longer than many of these demonstrators have been alive. Often, with a twinkle in his eye, Lukashenko refers to himself as a dictator. But in Sunday's election, he actually had a serious challenger in Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The protesters say Lukashenko has declared victory after mass vote rigging, which was achieved in part by holding early voting and also barring European election observers from monitoring the vote.

KING: Belarus is a key country in that region, Russia's closest ally. How is the Kremlin viewing what's going on there?

KIM: Well, it's really hard to stress the strategic importance of Belarus for Russia. For the Kremlin, it's a buffer zone bordering three NATO members, and it's been a gateway to invading armies for centuries. Now, Lukashenko often lashes out at Russia, but he's almost completely dependent on Russian energy deliveries. From the Kremlin's point of view, it's better to have an authoritarian regime in Belarus than a democratic government that might one day turn to the West. I talked Artyom Shraibman. He's a political analyst in Minsk. And I asked him how Russian President Vladimir Putin might react if the unrest continues.

ARTYOM SHRAIBMAN: I'm not sure Putin will necessarily intervene because it would probably add even more chaos to the situation. And there is no evident threat to the Russian interests. There is no foreign policy dimension to these protests. These people are not calling for anything apart from domestic change.

KING: Any chance that they will get domestic change, that Lukashenko will step down?

KIM: Lukashenko has been crystal clear that he wants to continue ruling Belarus and will brook no dissent. Minsk is not Portland, Ore. Belarussian police are using massive force against Belarusians, and that's because Lukashenko sees the protests as a direct threat to his political survival.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thank you.

KIM: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.