Detained Belarus opposition figure resists ‘forced expulsion’

Updated 09 Sep 2020


ACTIVISTS attend a rally in support of detained opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova in Minsk on Tuesday. — Reuters
ACTIVISTS attend a rally in support of detained opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova in Minsk on Tuesday. — Reuters

MINSK: Belarus on Tuesday said it had detained a leading opposition figure, Maria Kolesnikova, as she tried to flee across the Ukrainian border but Kiev said she was being held after resisting a forced deportation.

There were conflicting reports of whether Kolesnikova was trying to leave Belarus or being removed, with some saying she had torn up her passport to prevent being taken across the border.

She played a major role in the campaign of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory over President Alexander Lukashenko in a disputed election last month, and has since spoken at huge protest rallies against his rule.

Belarusian border guards said they detained Kolesnikova after she was apparently pushed out of a vehicle while attempting to flee across the border early on Tuesday.

They said she was travelling with two other members of the opposition’s Coordination Council, press secretary Anton Rodnenkov and executive secretary Ivan Kravtsov.

There are conflicting reports of whether Kolesnikova was trying to leave Belarus or being removed

Ukraine confirmed that Kravtsov and Rodnenkov had crossed the border but said Kolesnikova had resisted moves to force her to leave Belarus.

“This was not a voluntary departure. It was forced expulsion,” Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko wrote on Facebook.

He said Kolesnikova “took actions” to prevent her leaving. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency cited a source as saying she tore up her passport.

Kidnapping in broad daylight

Fellow Coordination Council member Pavel Latushko, who himself is in Poland, told Russia’s TV Rain he “received information from the Coordination Council that Maria ripped her passport while crossing the border”.

Both her companions were “safe” in Ukraine and were to give a press conference later on Tuesday, the Coordination Council said.

Tikhanovskaya called for Kolesnikova to be immediately freed.

“By kidnapping people in broad daylight, Lukashenko is showing his weakness and fear,” she said in a statement from Lithuania, where she has taken refuge.

Kolesnikova went missing on Monday, with witnesses saying she was bundled into a minibus on the street in the capital Minsk.

One of the strongest opposition speakers, she had insisted she would not leave Belarus voluntarily.

Lukashenko in an interview to Russian media claimed Kolesnikova and her companions “were fleeing to Ukraine” and said the guards “detained her as was required”. “The people in the car hit the gas. And she was apparently thrown out of the car as it was moving,” he said.

He said he would not talk to the Coordination Council because he did not know the members or recognise them as opposition.

Russia will be next

The strongman warned of dire consequences if his regime falls, in comments to television channels including state-funded RT.

“If Lukashenko collapses today the whole system would collapse and Belarus would collapse in turn,” he said, warning of consequences even for Russia, Belarus’s main ally.

“If Belarus falls, Russia will be next.” The Coordination Council was set up to ensure a peaceful transfer of power after Tikhanovskaya rejected Lukashenko’s claim to have won the August 9 presidential election with 80 per cent of the vote.

The authorities have tried to stop the Coordination Council from working by detaining activists and forcing them to leave the country.

Kolesnikova, 38, is the only one of the trio of women who fronted Tikhanovskaya’s campaign to remain in Belarus.

Tikhanovskaya left the country under pressure from the authorities and was granted refuge in EU member state Lithuania, while her other campaign partner, Veronika Tsepkalo, is now in Ukraine.

Police in Belarus have been intensifying their crackdown on the opposition, with more than 600 people arrested on Sunday at the latest huge weekend protest against Lukashenko.

Kolesnikova and other members of the Council including Nobel Literature Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich have faced questioning over an alleged bid to seize power.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2020