for-phone-onlyfor-tablet-portrait-upfor-tablet-landscape-upfor-desktop-upfor-wide-desktop-up
Top News

Viva Maria: Belarusian protesters celebrate leader who chose jail over exile

(Reuters) - Maria Kolesnikova’s decision to rip up her passport and risk prison rather than exile has burnished the musician-turned-politician’s status as a hero to the mass protest movement against veteran Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

An activist attends a rally in support of detained Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova in Minsk, Belarus September 8, 2020. BelaPAN/Handout via REUTERS

Dozens of people were detained this week as protesters took to the streets chanting her name and holding up placards, some reading “Viva Maria”. Her face was superimposed on the image of a Soviet World War Two poster and projected onto the side of a building in Minsk.

“Belarusian cops, sitting by the fire in the evening, frighten each other with stories about Maria Kolesnikova,” went one of several jokes doing the rounds online about her defiance.

The 38-year-old was last seen in public on Monday being snatched off the street of Minsk into a van by masked men. In a statement made through her lawyer, Kolesnikova says she was later driven to the Ukrainian border by security officers in the middle of the night, and threatened with expulsion “alive or in bits”.

According to two allies who were with her, she prevented her expulsion by tearing her passport into small pieces and throwing it out of the car window.

She is now detained in the capital, facing a potential long prison term over accusations of trying to seize power illegally.

Her team says Kolesnikova has bruises on her body, but “feels as normal as possible.”

“She is cheerful, her cellmates support her. She asks to be given light and bright clothes to dilute the grey shades of the cell,” they said in a statement on Thursday.

Fellow activist Ivan Kravtsov, who was driven to the border with Kolesnikova and travelled to Kyiv after his expulsion, said she had shown similar steel a few days earlier when confronting riot police, demanding they ensure the safety of the protesters.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

“There were these frightening people with shields, in riot gear, it looked pretty frightening. But she said, ‘I’m not in the least bit scared. I feel sorry for these people,’” Kravtsov told Reuters by phone.

“During all these months, we were periodically scared and Maria was, of course, scared. But obviously she can handle it.”

BECOMING A LEADER

Kolesnikova, a flautist who spent 12 years in Germany, has described her own rise to the frontlines of her country’s politics as unlikely and unexpected.

“I understand that I am becoming a leader, but this process, this transformation is just beginning with me. I cannot say that I was ready for this,” she said last week.

She was one of three women, all political novices, who joined forces to front the campaign against Lukashenko ahead of the Aug. 9 presidential election, after higher-profile male candidates were barred from standing.

The other two, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, both came forward in place of their better-known husbands. Kolesnikova had worked on the campaign of Viktor Babariko, a banker who was jailed. The women agreed to unite behind Tsikhanouskaya as a consensus candidate.

An image of the three -- Tsikhanouskaya clenching her fist, Kolesnikova making a heart sign and Tsepkalo making a ‘V’ for victory -- quickly spread. In the run-up to the vote, they drew crowds of tens of thousands, taking the authorities by surprise.

In her initial political speech after the arrest of Babariko, Kolesnikova appeared hesitant and lost her place in the text. But she quickly grew into a fiery public speaker.

While on the campaign trail, she told Reuters she sometimes wore dark glasses to mask her tears when she felt overwhelmed by support.

After the election, Tsikhanouskaya, Tsepkalo and other opposition figures fled into exile. But Kolesnikova vowed to stay, quipping that she would rather eat her passport than be forced across the border.

Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Peter Graff

for-phone-onlyfor-tablet-portrait-upfor-tablet-landscape-upfor-desktop-upfor-wide-desktop-up