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In an interview with AFP, Tikhanovskaya said Belarusians had lost their fear © AFP / PETRAS MALUKAS

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‘We are not afraid’: Belarus challenger urges protest unity

Vilnius, Lithuania, Aug 23 – Belarus opposition figurehead Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Saturday urged pro-democracy protesters to keep up the momentum, saying President Alexander Lukashenko had “no choice” but to engage with the opposition.

In an interview with AFP, Tikhanovskaya also said Belarusians had lost their fear and called Lukashenko’s move to step up border security an attempt to “distract attention from our inner problems”.

“I am so proud of Belarusians now because after 26 years of fear they are ready to defend their rights,” she said in Vilnius, where she fled to after an election on August 9 in which she claims victory.

“I call them to continue, not to stop, because it’s really important now to continue to be united in the struggle for the rights,” she said, speaking on the eve of mass protests expected in Belarus on Sunday.

Opponents of Europe’s longest serving leader have organised strikes and the largest demonstrations in the ex-Soviet country’s recent history to protest his re-election and demand that he stand down.

“They have to understand that we are not a protest movement. We are people of Belarus and we are a majority and we will not step away. We are not afraid of them any more,” Tikhanovskaya told AFP.

– Lukashenko ‘has no choice’ –

A former English teacher and political novice, 37-year-old Tikhanovskaya only joined the political fray in the weeks before the election after her blogger husband was prevented from registering his own candidacy.

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She has not given details on why exactly she left Belarus in the aftermath of the vote but she said she did it for her children and her supporters say she came under intense pressure from Belarusian officials.

She has called for new free and fair elections and says she is not planning to run in any future vote.

Tikhanovskaya has also appointed a Coordination Council which she wants to negotiate “a peaceful handover of power” but the opposition body is being investigated in Belarus as an illegal attempt to topple Lukashenko.

Asked what could push Lukashenko to engage with the opposition, she said: “I think he has no choice.”

But she said that dialogue should start as soon as possible “not to make this crisis deeper”.

Lukashenko, who looks to Moscow for support, says the opposition is backed by Western powers and earlier on Saturday ordered border security stepped up “to protect the territorial integrity of our country”.

But Tikhanovskaya said Lukashenko “just wants to distract attention from our inner problems”.

The EU has rejected the election result and is planning sanctions against Belarusian officials accused of a violent crackdown on protests, while Washington is sending an envoy to Lithuania and Russia next week.

Russia has expressed cautious support for Lukashenko but there is concern in the region that it could intervene more heavy-handedly if the protests continue.

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“It’s very important for our country, for Belarusian people that other countries support them,” she said.

“We are glad to have any help… but I have to repeat that we hope for respect for sovereignty of our country.”

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