Belarusian opposition still optimistic despite government crackdown gaining pace | World News

This week in Belarus they came for the leaders of the opposition.

Maria Kolesnikova says state security goons put a sack over her head and drove her to the border with Ukraine, saying she would be leaving the country “dead or alive”.

So she ripped up her passport. She is now holed up in Minsk Detention Centre Number 1, with tribute posters of her appearing in the capital.

Maria Kolesnikova
Maria Kolesnikova says she was attacked by government agents

Then they came for Maksim Znak, her colleague on the opposition coordination council. Nobel literature prize winner Svetlana Alexievich called journalists to her flat, fearing she would be next.

“First they kidnapped the country, now it’s the turn of the best among us,” she told reporters.

“But hundreds more will replace those who have been torn from our ranks. It is not the coordinating council that has rebelled. It is the country.”

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki (L) in Warsaw on Wednesday
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki (L) in Warsaw on Wednesday

She is still free – the only member of the opposition coordinating council who has not been detained or forced to flee.

President Alexander Lukashenko has not yet decided to lock up the woman sometimes referred to as the nation’s conscience, but it is by no means impossible.

His crackdown is gathering steam. It may intensify if, as expected, tens of thousands take to the streets again this weekend – a prelude to their president’s meeting on Monday with Vladimir Putin.

Mr Lukashenko will be going to the Russian resort town of Sochi, cap in hand, hoping the Russian president can shore him up at a time when he has never looked so unstable.

Before, he has always managed to take a firm line on Belarusian freedom.


Masked men raid Belarus leader’s rival HQ

Now though, despite the Union State Treaty signed by both countries in 1999, which stipulated independence, he appears desperate enough to trade in his people’s sovereignty.

Vladimir Putin, ever the opportunist, will know exactly which buttons to press.

Mr Lukashenko is mistaken if he thinks eradicating the leadership back home will kill the protest movement.

Ever since he claimed an 83% victory in the polls and his people cried foul, this has been a protest rallying through the social media app Telegram, and behind a myriad of different leaders.

“The people themselves became the leader,” Veronika Tsepkalo, one of three women who originally joined forces to take on Mr Lukashenko in the presidential election, told Sky News from Warsaw.

“If you look at the students, they have a leader in the university. It’s the same in the factories and trade unions – they all have a leader who gathers people to them.”

A law enforcement officer drags a demonstrator during a rally in support of detained Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova in Minsk

Forceful arrests as Belarus activists rally

Ms Tsepkalo and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya have both been forced to leave the country.

Only Ms Kolesnikova – now behind bars – is left in Belarus.

“I just hope Lukashenko doesn’t put 9.5 million people in jail,” Ms Tsepkalo says.

“There won’t be any room in the prisons soon.”

For all the street protests, the wind has gone out of the industrial strike action.

Ulyana Gorbacheva – a member of the strike committee at the Minsk Tractor Factory – says people are scared, explaining: “Now there are only about 100 people doing this non-stop. In the beginning it was three or four thousand.”

She says the factory is crawling with KGB spies and management pressure is too much for most people.

“Some have already been fired in a very brutal way. When people see this happening they begin to think, ‘we live in a dormitory, we’ve got bank loans, we can’t continue to strike or we’ll be fired too’.”

She was detained briefly last Sunday but she says she’ll go out again this weekend.

“The people won’t give up, we are 100% sure of that,” she says.

“I do believe that if we continue to rock the boat the workers will join us again further down the line.”

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