MINSK — Eight months before journalist Roman Protasevich was dragged from a commercial flight that Belarusian authorities essentially "hijacked," an even more prominent opponent of strongman Alexander Lukashenko's decades-old regime was seized in the middle of a street in Minsk by a group of masked men, presumably KGB agents.
Just before dawn the next day, the detainee — professional flautist and former presidential candidate Maria Kolesnikova — found herself at the Ukranian border with a decision to make: Would she do as her captors wanted and leave Belarus? Instead, the 39-year-old political dissident tore apart her passport, effectively choosing prison over exile.
"In all honesty, I wasn't surprised when I heard about what happened at the border," says Tatiana Khmomitch, the Warsaw-based sister of Kolesnikova.
Known for her prominent role in the wave of protests against President Lukashenko's recent and controversial re-election, Kolesnikova is now facing up to 12 years of prison on charges such as "conspiracy to seize power by unconstitutional means" and "creating and managing an extremist group."
Last month's shocking, mid-flight capture of a dissident journalist has reminded the world of the repression by the Belarus regime.
Kolesnikova's pre-trial detention period, which can be stretched out up to 18 months, has been extended repeatedly since the charges were brought. The latest extension, announced just two months ago, was supposed to end on May 8, but as her lawyers anticipated, Kolesnikova remains behind bars.
Tatiana Khmomitch helps maintain Kolesnikova's social media presence, keeping the public updated on how the political dissident is fairing behind bars. "I can see how much her courage inspires people," the sister explains.
She is currently sharing a 10-square-meter cell with a fellow prisoner.
From Warsaw, she is in charge of sharing brief posts on Facebook and Instagram about Kolesnikova's state of mind. "I can see how her courage inspires people," says Khmomitch, adding that her sister "remains very positive — she knows that this situation can't last forever."
Kolesnikova, a top-tier musician turned social activist, is now one of the nearly 400 political prisoners recognized by the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna. She is currently being held in a pre-trial detention center, sharing a 10-square-meter cell with a fellow prisoner. Kolesnikova is "only allowed to have direct contact with her lawyers," so her family is forced to communicate via the slow and unreliable mail system.
Maria Kolesnikova's involvement in the movement was facilitated by her relationship with Viktor Babaryko, the opposition's favored candidate for the Aug. 9, 2020 presidential election. The two met in 2018 when Kolesnikova was working as the artistic director of a cultural center he had helped develop. Though they had only known each other in this capacity, Babaryko would go on to offer her a communications position on his team.
Opposition activists carrying flowers in support of Maria Kolesnikova in Minsk, September 8, 2020 — Photo : Valery Sharifulin
The campaign started off by simply asking people to sign petitions. But as Ivan Kravtsov, who worked alongside Kolesnikova, explains: "The team prepared itself quickly for the possibility of Viktor being arrested." And part of their contingency plan, in that case, was for Kolesnikova to take over Babryko's candidacy
"We discussed various scenarios, and ultimately chose Maria because of her experience as a manager and her talent for bringing people together," says Kravtsov, a former architect who also know lives in Warsaw.
On June 18, 2020, their fears were realized: Viktor Babaryko was arrested on suspicion of fraud and money laundering, and he has been behind bars ever since. From there, an all-female trio of political opponents took form when the candidacies of Viktor Babaryko and Valeri Tsepkalo, another contender, were rejected by the electoral commission.
Maria Kolesnikova stayed, leaving her as the only opposition candidate still physically in the country.
In light of this development, people turned to Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya — the wife of imprisoned candidate Sergei Tsikhanovsky. But she and Maria Kolesnikova weren't the only women preparing to put up a fight against Alexander Lukashenko. Veronika Tsepkalo, Valeri Tsepkalo's wife, also decided to throw her hat in the ring.
When the results of the election came in, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya secured just 10.9% of the vote, while Lukashenko, the sitting president since 1994, won 80.1% of the vote share, according to official reports.
Of the trio, Veronika Tsepkalo opted to go into exile the day before the election and Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya was forced to leave for Lithuania two days afterwards. But Maria Kolesnikova stayed, leaving her as the only opposition candidate still physically in the country. And she refused to back down, making prominent appearances at demonstrations and stirring up crowds.
"We knew we had to stay. But we were also waiting for the other shoe to drop," says Ivan Kravtsov.
He and Anton Rodnenkov were arrested the same day as Maria Kolesnikova. They were the last ones to see her in the buffer zone between Belarus and Ukraine. But when Kolesnikova tore her passport and climbed out of the car window, they decided to cross the border.
A woman holds a placard depicting Maria Kolesnikova during a rally in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 12 September 2020 — Photo : Str
Maria Kolesnikova has been rewarded for her bravery. She received both the Sakharov Prize, which was given in the fall of 2020 to all members of the opposition, and the International Women of Courage Prize by the U.S. State Department.
In Belarus, her rebellious personality continues to inspire the masses. Many Belorusian people feel encouraged by her patriotic decision to stay behind, and, for a while, people continued to celebrate her on social media. Buildings throughout the Belarusian capital were decorated with graffiti and murals in her honor. Maxim Shumilin, a photographic artist and friend of Kolesnikova since 2017, describes her as a woman who is "very empathetic...a musician, not a politician."
"Maybe that's why she's one of the main heroines of this struggle," the artists adds. "Because she is very human."
But since then, everything has changed, a reality brought into even further focus by the mid-air seizure, on May 23, of Roman Protasevich. While dreams of democracy in Belarus are still alive, systematic repression no longer allows protesters to mobilize. Anyone who shares social media posts critical of the regime or flies opposition flags in their living rooms is at risk of being arrested.
There are those who have given up, those who continue to fight for others, and those who are leaving.
Viasna reported at least 304 arrests in April alone. At the end of the month, the crackdown had become so severe that 20 people were arrested in a private steam room for "participating in a mass event not authorized by the authorities." Even the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, set to take place on April 26, was banned. On the morning of the anticipated event, Belorusians awoke to find police officers deployed throughout the city, checking the contents of passersby's bags and searching through their cell phones for evidence of allegiance to the opposition.
The Protasevich case, which involved the use of a Belarusian fighter jet to force-land the plane on which the journalist was flying, brings the repression to even more alarming heights.
The words of one anonymous Belarusian protestor speak volumes: "There are those who have given up, those who continue to fight for others, and those who are leaving."
The man, who lives with his wife and children on the outskirts of Minsk, is convinced that he will be arrested at some point. "It could be today, it could be tomorrow. Either way, they will come."
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