A prominent Belarusian opposition figure tore up her passport to thwart an attempt to forcibly deport her from her homeland Tuesday morning, a day after she was detained by unidentified men on the streets of the capital.
Maria Kolesnikova, a key figure behind mass protests that have roiled Belarus following last month’s disputed election, remains in the custody of Belarusian officials, after an apparent attempt to transport her and two other opposition activists across the border with neighboring Ukraine early Tuesday.
The 38-year-old had been missing since being bundled into a vehicle by masked men in central Minsk Monday morning.
According to Ukrainian media reports, Kolesnikova deliberately ripped up her passport to stop herself being taken across the border.
“When attempting to deport her, she tore her passport and could not be allowed into the territory of Ukraine by border guards,” a source told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency. Describing her as a “brave woman”, Ukraine’s deputy interior minister Anton Gerashchenko wrote on Facebook that Kolesnikova had prevented “a forcible expulsion from her native country” through her actions.
“It wasn’t a voluntary trip!” he wrote, adding that Kolesnikova remained on Belarus territory, and that Belarus’ embattled strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko was now “personally responsible for her life and health”.
Kolesnikova – who served as the campaign manager for jailed opposition candidate Viktor Babariko – is a leading figure on the Coordination Council, the body that’s peacefully pushed for a transition of power since last month’s allegedly rigged election.
The apparent attempt to force her out of the country was not a surprise, Belarus expert Eleanor Bindman told VICE News. Of the three women leaders driving the protest movement, Kolesnikova was the last to remain inside Belarus, the others having been driven out with threats and intimidation.
“She’s really been the face of the protests for the last few weeks,” Bindman, a senior lecturer in politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, told VICE News. “I think she was probably expecting this to happen at some point, because this is now the pattern.”
Bindman said the Belarusian authorities had adopted a strategy of forcing their opponents to flee the country, by threatening them or their families with jail. “They seem to think if they just remove people from the territory, then that will stop the protests. It’s ludicrous,” she said. “It’s a very basic strategy, but it is just pure repression at this point.”
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate, has fled to neighbouring Lithuania, while her aide, Veronika Tsepkalo, fled to Poland after the August 9th election, after receiving threats from the government that she would be arrested.
Another prominent opposition activist, Olga Kovalkova, arrived in Warsaw on Saturday, saying she had been forced to flee due to threats from Belarusian authorities that she would be arrested and face a lengthy detention.
Bindman said Kolesnikova had been vocal about her desire to remain in Belarus, even as her colleagues were driven out. She told the BBC last month: "To understand exactly what's going on, you really have to be here."
The car carrying Kolesnikova to the border Tuesday morning also contained two other opposition figures who had also been detained on Monday: Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov. According to the Ukrainian government, the two men crossed the border into Ukraine.
While Belarusian authorities confirmed Tuesday that Kolesnikova was in custody, her exact whereabouts remain unclear, sparking calls for her release. Opposition candidate Tikhanovskaya called for Kolesnikova and all other arrested members of the Coordination Council to be released, while German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas demanded “clarity on the whereabouts and the release of all political prisoners in Belarus”.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko – the strongman known as “Europe’s last dictator” – told Russian media Tuesday that he wouldn’t rule out holding new elections, following the weeks of sustained protests in the country, but rejected the prospect of dialogue with the opposition.
He also acknowledged that his 26 years in power may have been too long. “Maybe I overstayed a bit,” he was quoted as saying.