Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has said her country’s people have changed and will no longer accept President Alexander Lukashenko, whose controversial re-election has sparked mass protests demanding his removal.
In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday, Tikhanovskaya, who is in exile in neighbouring Lithuania, said Lukashenko should “step away” and “it is better for everybody”.
“Sooner or later he will have to step away. It’s better for everybody. It’s better for the country if it will happen in the shortest time,” the 37-year-old leader said.
“The Belarusian people have changed. They will never accept the old authorities.”
The former Soviet republic has been rocked by anti-government protests following a controversial election earlier this month that saw Lukashenko claim a landslide victory for a sixth straight term.
The 65-year-old strongman’s opponents say the August 9 presidential vote was marred by irregularities, and have called for a fresh election.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators have since staged mass rallies across the Eastern European country to demand an end to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
The government responded to the unprecedented protests with a violent crackdown in which at least two people have died, while dozens of others were arrested and allegedly tortured in custody.
Belarus protests: Rights groups compile torture evidence
An embattled Lukashenko on Saturday ordered his defence minister to take “stringent measures” to defend the country’s territorial integrity against the mass protests.
When asked if she was worried that there could be more bloodshed if the movement continued, Tikhanovskaya said the crackdown was the “biggest mistake” of the authorities.
“The violence that Belarusian authorities showed to their people, I consider that to be their greatest mistake ever. I call for authorities to not repeat this mistake because our people will never forget or forgive our president,” said the former English teacher.
On being asked if she was planning to return from exile, Tikhanovskaya said she wanted to go back to Belarus, but did not feel safe in her country any more.
“I am safe here in Lithuania but I don’t feel safe in Belarus now,” she said, adding that she also feared for her husband and YouTube blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was arrested after he tried to register as a candidate for the presidential poll.
‘Mood still quite optimistic’
Meanwhile, protests calling for Lukashenko to resign continued across Belarus for the 14th day on Saturday.
Hundreds of women dressed in white formed a human chain in capital Minsk as a sign of protest. Another demonstration on Saturday evening was attended by 3,000 people.
“This is basically a warming for a very large rally that has been announced for tomorrow,” said Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Minsk.
The opposition has called for a major rally in Minsk on Sunday after more than 100,000 people flooded on to the streets of the capital and other cities last weekend.
Vaessen said “the mood is still quite optimistic” among the protesters despite Lukashenko threatening “more detentions, more police violence”.
“He [Lukashenko] actually showed up today in a military uniform at the Polish border, again saying that NATO troops are moving towards Belarus, basically creating some kind of war atmosphere distracting people from internal affairs and from the protest movement,” she said.