VILNIUS, LITHUANIA - Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya sees herself as a symbol of change whose role is to help deliver new elections as President Alexander Lukashenko will have to quit sooner or later, she told Reuters Saturday.
Speaking in Lithuania, to which she and her two children have fled for security reasons, Tsikhanouskaya said she felt duty-bound to do what she could to support protesters in her home country but would not run for president again.
"During the campaign I didn't see myself as a politician, but I pushed myself forward," she said. "I don't see myself in politics. I am not a politician."
Tens of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets for nearly two weeks to protest against what they believe was a rigged August 9 presidential election. They want veteran leader Lukashenko to quit so new elections can be held.
Tsikhanouskaya, who ran in the election against Lukashenko after her husband, a well-known video blogger, was jailed, said fate had handed her a role that she had no right to forsake.
"It is my fate and my mission, and I don't have the right to step away. I understand that I'm in safety here, but all the people who voted for me in Belarus ... need me as a symbol. They need the person they voted for. I couldn't betray my people."
She has been making regular video appeals to try to keep up the protests' momentum. She said she had also fielded phone calls from world leaders who had asked her how they could help.
None gave concrete promises to support her, and none said they regarded her as the president-elect.
"I understand that they have no right and possibility to interfere in internal affairs of our country. ... I asked everybody to respect the independence of our country, the sovereignty of our country," she said.
'Sooner or later'
When asked which countries had called, she mentioned Canada, the United States, Britain, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and others.
Tsikhanouskaya will meet U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in Lithuania on Monday as part of the efforts to defuse the crisis over disputed elections, her aides told Reuters.
The No. 2 U.S. diplomat will stop over in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, en route to Moscow as Washington seeks a peaceful resolution to the crisis that would avert Russian intervention.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has close ties with Belarus, had not been in touch, and Tsikhanouskaya said she would not attempt to reach him herself.
"I don't have anything to ask him about, just [to respect] sovereignty," she said. "Any future relationship with Russia or other countries would be decided by people and by the new president."
Tsikhanouskaya said that Lukashenko's authority was badly damaged and that things would be different in Belarus, even if he managed to cling to power for now.
Lukashenko said Saturday that he would close factories that have seen worker protests, the Russian RIA news agency reported — his latest attempt to quell a wave of opposition rallies since the contested elections.
"Belarusian people have changed during this year. The Belarusian people won't be able to accept him as the new president....
"I'm sure that sooner or later he will have to leave."