A leading opposition activist in Belarus was held on the border with Ukraine on Tuesday after she resisted an attempt by authorities to deport her as part of government efforts to end a month of protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the Coordination Council created by the opposition to facilitate talks with the long-time leader on a transition of power, was detained Monday in the capital of Minsk along with two other council members.
They were driven early Tuesday to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine. When they arrived in a no-man’s land between the countries, Ms. Kolesnikova ripped her passport into small pieces to make it impossible for the authorities to expel her. She has remained in custody on the Belarussian side of the border since the incident.
Two other council members who crossed into Ukraine, Ivan Kravtsov and Anton Rodnenkov, described Ms. Kolesnikova’s action with open admiration.
“She was shouting that she won’t go anywhere,” Mr. Rodnenkov said at a news conference in Kyiv. “Sitting in the car, she saw her passport on a front seat and tore it into many small fragments, crumpled them and threw them out of the window. After that, she opened the back door and walked back to the Belarussian border.”
He said that “Maria is in great shape, full of energy and spirits, as always.”
Anton Bychkovsky, spokesman for Belarus' Border Guard Committee, confirmed she is in the custody of Belarussian authorities but refused to give any details of what happened on the border.
Belarus has used similar tactics to force other opposition figures to leave the country, seeking to end a month of demonstrations that followed the re-election of Mr. Lukashenko in a vote that protesters see as rigged. Mr. Lukashenko has ruled the country for 26 years, relentlessly stifling dissent and keeping most of the economy in state hands.
The 66-year-old former state farm director has rejected criticism from the United States and the European Union, which said the Aug. 9 election was neither free nor fair and shrugged off their demands to open a dialogue with the opposition.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger to Mr. Lukashenko, left for Lithuania a day after the election under pressure from authorities.
Addressing the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly on Tuesday, Ms. Tsikhanuskaya called for international sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko and other government officials.
“We need international pressure on this regime, on this one individual, desperately clinging onto power,” she said.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya stated that Mr. Lukashenko doesn’t have any legitimacy after stealing the vote, warning other countries against making any deals with the Belarussian government.
“He does not represent Belarus any more,” she said.
Ms. Kolesnikova, a 38-year-old flute player who led a popular arts centre, entered politics just before the election. She led the campaign headquarters of a top potential challenger to Mr. Lukashenko, and when he was barred from running and jailed on charges widely seen as political, she joined Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign.
Another associate of Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, Antonina Konovalova, disappeared Tuesday after a court fined her for taking part in a weekend protest.
As evening fell, police dispersed several hundred demonstrators rallying in Minsk in solidarity with Ms. Kolesnikova and detained at least 45 protesters, according to the Viasna human rights centre.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed “very serious concern” at “the repeated use of force against peaceful protesters, as well as reported pressures on opposition civil society activists,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The UN chief’s message is that “the Belarussian people should be able to exercise their political and constitutional rights peacefully in a democratic environment,” the spokesman said, and “the current crisis that we’re seeing in Belarus needs to be resolved through an inclusive dialogue amongst the Belarussian people.”
After a brutal crackdown on protesters by police in the initial days after the vote that stoked international outrage and swelled the ranks of protesters, authorities in Belarus have switched to threats and selective arrests of activists and demonstrators.
Belarussian prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into members of the Coordination Council, accusing them of undermining national security by calling for a transition of power. Several council members were arrested and others were called for questioning.
Last week, Pavel Latushko, a former minister of culture and ambassador to France who joined the opposition council, travelled to Poland after facing threats and being questioned. His departure came a day after Mr. Lukashenko warned that Mr. Latushko had crossed a “red line” and would face prosecution.
On Saturday, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya associate Olga Kovalkova also moved to Poland after the authorities threatened to jail her for a long time if she refused to leave the country.
Ms. Kovalkova said agents of the Belarussian State Security Committee, or KGB, put her into a car, where she was told to lie on the floor, unaware where they were taking her. She was dropped off in no-man’s land between the Belarus and Poland border, and Polish border guards asked a bus driver headed for Poland to take her on board.
The French Foreign Ministry issued a strong condemnation “of arbitrary arrests and the practice of forced exiles of several members of the Coordination Council, as well as of numerous demonstrators in recent days.”
“We call on Belarus authorities to end without delay these actions, to free those arbitrarily detained,” and open a national dialogue, the ministry said.
Despite the pressure on opposition activists, daily protests have continued and crowds have swelled on the weekends. An estimated 100,000 attended a rally Sunday, despite heavy rain.
Speaking in an interview with Russian journalists, Mr. Lukashenko said it’s “tragic” for him to face massive protests, but insisted that he has retained the support of most of the country.
“I must protect what has been built with our hands, protect the people who have built it, and they are an overwhelming majority,” he said.
Amid Western criticism, Mr. Lukashenko has relied on support from Moscow, his main sponsor and ally. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he stands ready to send police to Belarus on Mr. Lukashenko’s request if rallies turn violent but there is no need for that yet.
Mr. Lukashenko blamed the U.S. for instigating the protests and warned Russia that it could face similar demonstrations in the future.
“If Belarus collapses today, Russia will come next,” he said.
Observers say Mr. Lukashenko hopes to stem the protests with selective repressions against the opposition leaders and soothe public anger with vague talk about constitutional reform and a new election at an unspecified date. The Kremlin has endorsed his promise of such a reform.
“The authorities' scenario is clear – push all the leaders out of the country and step up repressions against demonstrators while imitating a dialogue on a constitutional reform under the patronage of the Kremlin,” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent Minsk-based analyst. “Lukashenko hopes that the rallies of 100,000 will fizzle after the expulsion of opposition leaders, but so far it has had an opposite effect, helping fuel more protests.”
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