VILNIUS, Lithuania — Marina Garbuz, 27, insists it was her constitutional right to observe election voting at a school in Minsk Aug. 9, even though she and her 1-year-old daughter were threatened by authorities.
She later learned that 110% of the population voted, including 500 of the 300 registered voters in her precinct.
But it was not until military police approached her with a threatening gaze that she held her baby girl Anya tightly and ran as fast as she could.
She continued to volunteer for pro-democracy groups and now-exiled opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya for an additional month. She handed out food and water to protesters. She saw prisoners stumble out of jails, beaten and barely clothed.
“We volunteered as a family,” she said of the pro-democracy protests she attended in the month that ensued after Alexander Lukashenko, 65, claimed he had won 80% of the vote.
It wasn’t until her husband was detained Sept. 7 that Garbuz and her family fled Minsk for Lithuania to the north.
“More people will be injured or killed,” she told the Washington Examiner through a Russian translator at a protest in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Vilnius.
Cars honked as they raced past about 50 protesters at dusk in this Baltic country. Protesters waved traditional Belarusian flags and blasted Belarusian rock music. Garbuz, behind a black face mask, clutched her baby in one arm and held a sign in the other.
It read: “Lukashenko, you are not our president. You’re a rat.”
A large, round animal sketch with devil ears and a sad face decorated the elementary posterboard.
“I wasn’t afraid. No one elected him. He’s weak, and I don’t have to be afraid of him,” she said of her participation in protests of the dictator who has held power for 26 years.
“Unfortunately, most probably, there will be blood,” she said of the weeks to come.
On Wednesday, Lukashenko held a closed-door, unannounced self-inauguration. European countries have already declared him illegitimate.
“The demand is clear — free and fair elections. That's what the Belarusian people are asking,” Vilnius University professor and Belarus expert Vytis Jurkonis told the Washington Examiner. “Nobody's greedy for power.”
Lithuanian diplomats who spoke to the Washington Examiner framed the situation in Belarus as centered on paving the way for self-determination of the Slavic country instead of a geopolitical tug of war between Russia and the West.
“Lukashenko is illegitimate, not representing the Belarusian people, and it's clearly not a geopolitical debate. So, someone is missing the mark,” Jurkonis explained.
Lithuania has historic ties to Belarus. It has long been home to outcast Belarusian nongovernmental organizations and democracy advocates. But this protest is different.
Hundreds of thousands still gather in the streets of Minsk every week. The crackdown has lessened, targeting specific opposition leaders instead of widespread beatings.
“I’m really proud of Belarus, I’m very proud of my nation,” Dmitry, 42, told the Washington Examiner, asking that his last name not be used. The Belarusian citizen has been working as a network systems engineer in Lithuania for three years while making regular return visits to his home country, a short bus ride away.
Dmitry said something has changed in the mentality of the people. Something he has never seen before in his life under Russian domination and 26 years of Lukashenko.
“For the first time in Belarus, I have seen such a great amount of smiling people,” he said. “I would call it the revolution of smiles.”