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Belarus Opposition, In Exile, Appeals To U.S. Not To Recognize Contested Election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Belarus, authorities say they arrested close to 7,000 people in protests since a disputed presidential election. Now detainees are starting to be released, and they're talking about indiscriminate beatings in prison. They're also sharing photos of their injuries. As NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow, this election is being challenged both at home and abroad.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: This summer, the face of Belarus's democratic opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko has been Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a political novice running in the place of her imprisoned husband. She drew huge, enthusiastic crowds as she campaigned around the country. After Lukashenko claimed to have won 80% of the vote Sunday, she accused him of massive vote rigging and suddenly went missing. She reappeared in neighboring Lithuania, leaving a cryptic emotional video message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "You know," she said, "I thought this campaign had made me tough enough to withstand anything, but I've had to make a very difficult decision."

VALERY TSEPKALO: Svetlana cannot speak at this particular moment since her husband is kept in prison, and, probably, they told her that he would not survive the prison in case Svetlana would start to speak openly against this regime and would start to call people to the streets.

KIM: That's Valery Tsepkalo, one of Tikhanovskaya's political allies. He, too, is in exile. NPR reached him by Skype while he was in a taxi in neighboring Ukraine. Tsepkalo, an IT entrepreneur and former Belarusian ambassador to the U.S., was one of the main presidential contenders against Lukashenko. But, like Tikhanovskaya's husband, Sergei, Tsepkalo was denied registration as a candidate, and he fled Belarus with his two children amid pressure from authorities. His wife, Veronika, stayed behind to work on Tikhanovskaya's campaign but has now also left Belarus.

TSEPKALO: We expect that we will be united very soon, in one or two days. This political campaign brought us to different countries and to different places, and, finally, we will be able to be together.

KIM: Tsepkalo is now trying to get support from the European Union and the U.S. The leaders of China and many former Soviet republics were quick to recognize Lukashenko's reelection, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

TSEPKALO: We are very upset. We are very disappointed of the fact that Putin congratulated Lukashenko with the results of the presidential campaign, which appeared to be completely false.

KIM: Candidate Tsepkalo was seen as a favorite, with his diplomatic and business experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

KIM: A video on his website shows Tsepkalo and his wife meeting voters during an opposition protest in downtown Minsk this summer. Lukashenko figured that by barring Tsepkalo and others from the election, he could afford to let Tikhanovskaya run and humiliate the opposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV INTERVIEW)

PRESIDENT ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "I swear I hardly think about it," Lukashenko said in a TV interview before the election. Tsepkalo says that after his violent crackdown on the opposition this week, Lukashenko has blood on his hands.

TSEPKALO: We would like the U.S. government support Belarus people and to recognize Svetlana as the only legitimate leader in the Republic of Belarus.

KIM: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's promised to hold new free and fair elections if she takes office, and Valery Tsepkalo has not given up his ambition to become the president of a democratic Belarus.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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