One day after she tore up her passport and refused to leave Belarus, opposition leader Maryya Kalesnikava, a close ally of presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is being detained in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, as a suspect in a criminal case about alleged public appeals to seize power from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
As a result of Kalesnikava’s seizure and the September 9 detention of another senior member of Belarus’ Coordination Council, the group representing thousands of Belarusian protesters against Lukashenka’s official reelection, now has only one leader still free within Belarus: 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Svetlana Aleksievich.
“First, they kidnapped our country,” the 72-year-old Aleksievich wrote of the Lukashenka administration in a September 9 comment for the Belarusian PEN Center. “They’re kidnapping the best of us,” she said in reference to the September 7 disappearance of Kalesnikava, now in prison in Minsk, and two colleagues, Coordination Council Executive Secretary Ivan Krautsou and spokesman Anton Randyonkau, now in Ukraine.
Kalesnikava’s father, Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, told the news service TUT.by on September 9 that a senior official from the Investigative Committee, which handles pre-trial criminal investigations, had informed him that Kalesnikava is in Detention Facility No. 1 on Minsk’s Valadarskaha Street. The jail is around the corner from the Belarusian KGB headquarters.
Kalesnikava’s lawyer, Lyudmila Kazak, who has visited the opposition activist, confirmed that she is being held there as a suspect in an ongoing criminal case against the Coordination Council for supposedly making public appeals for an overthrow of Lukashenka’s government.
The 38-year-old flutist-turned-politician is "in a fighting mood" and has not retracted her previously stated positions, Kazak told Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.
The Investigative Committee claims that it has evidence from “mass media and Internet resources” against Kalesnikava and detained attorney Maksim Znak, another member of the Coordination Council presidium.
Under Belarus’ criminal code, calling for the overthrow of the government can lead to up to five years in prison.
A possible prison term for Kalesnikava should not be excluded, commented former Belarusian diplomat Valer Kovalevski. “The authorities can interpret practically any fact, event as a violation of the law,” Kovalevski charged.
Outside Kalesnikava’s Minsk apartment, masked men, believed to be employees of the special services, told journalists on September 9 that her residence was being searched in connection with an investigation.
Searches reportedly also have again been conducted in the headquarters of Viktar Babaryka, the ex-banker and aspiring presidential candidate, jailed since July, whom Kalesnikava represented on the Coordination Council.
Yet, though its Belarus-based leadership is now down to Alexievich, who has not participated actively in its operations, the Coordination Council intends to continue its campaign against Lukashenka’s government, underlined Pavel Latushka, a Coordination Council presidium member now located in Poland.
For decisions, the group will rely on its next tier of membership – a few dozen representatives of political parties, civil society organizations, and cultural figures, said Latushka, a former Belarusian Culture Minister and ambassador.
Beneath this tier is a base membership of about 5,000 people – an unlikely number for the Belarusian government to detain or kick out of the country, he added.
The Belarusian government counters that Kalesnikava, Randyonkau, and Krautsou left Belarus voluntarily, driving in a black BMW to Ukraine.
En route, officials claim, Kalesnikava was “pushed” out of the vehicle. Belarusian officials allege she was detained trying to cross the Ukrainian border “illegally.”
In an interview with Current Time, however, Randyonkau and Krautsou, now in Kyiv, rejected this explanation as a cover story created by the Belarusian special services.
"Judging by everything, this would be a very acceptable, beautiful story for them, if all three of us together left [Belarus],” said Krautsou.
Instead, he noted, after the two men, both detained in Minsk, were conveyed in separate vehicles to the neutral zone between Belarus and Ukraine on September 7, their masked escorts placed them inside a waiting BMW.
Inside were the three activists’ passports, certificates stating that the three were not infected by COVID-19, medical insurance, and plane tickets for the two men to fly to Turkey, the two men told a September 8 Kyiv press-conference.
Separate tickets allowed Kalesnikava to fly to Vienna and then on to Munich. (Kalesnikava formerly worked as a professional flutist and studied music in Germany.)
Krautsou alleged that the tickets were part of the government’s attempt to present their departure as a voluntary decision to move abroad.
But Kalesnikava, who arrived in the neutral zone later, fought against being placed in the car, recounted Randyonkau.
“She demanded a lawyer, she resisted loudly. She was forcibly pushed into the back seat of the car.”
The escorts turned on the car doors’ automatic locks so that they could not be opened from the inside, and slammed the door on Kalesnikova, Randyonkau said.
“Maryya, when she got inside, immediately saw her passport. She took it, tore it into pieces, threw it out the window. After that, she got out through another window and walked toward the Belarusian border.”
Kalesnikava was taken back to the mini-bus in which she had arrived, he said.
She has not been seen in public since the morning of September 7, when a witness spotted masked men in civilian clothes pushing her into a minivan marked Svyaz (Communication) near Minsk’s National Art Museum.
After they had gone to Kalesnikava’s apartment to check on this report, Randyonkau and Kratskov said they were picked up by men “without identification badges” and placed into a mini-van. The two said they were taken to departments of the anti-organized-crime police and then to the Department of Financial Investigations.
Their interlocutors, they claimed, did not identify themselves. The two were interviewed separately, for various lengths of time.
Krautsou, who said he was threatened with a criminal case for abuse of power at his earlier job, alleged that his interlocutors were primarily interested in the “possibility” of getting Kalesnikava out of the country.
“They explained this by the need, in their opinion, to deescalate the situation in the country,” he told the Kyiv press conference.
Randyonkau described Kalesnikava’s response to the attempt to force her to leave Belarus as typical.
She “feels responsibility toward all the people with whom she spoke during the election campaign,” as well as jailed political allies such as Viktar Babaryka and other colleagues and friends now also in prison, he commented to Current Time.
“And she feels that she can't just pick up and leave,” he continued.
Randyonkau and Kraukou opted to try to reach Ukraine when they saw another mini-van emerge from nearby woods to block their road once Kalesnikava exited the car.
“We drove around it at high speed to prevent them from playing out the scenario they had planned,” Randyonkau said of the Belarusian special services.
He sees the experience as reminiscent of the recent reported expulsion of Olga Kovalkova, another member of the Coordination Council presidium, to Poland and presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s post-election departure for Lithuania after a conversation with special services representatives in Minsk.
Yet, by entering Ukraine, Randyonkau and Kraukou, in effect, entirely undermined any attempted “special operation,” commented Andrey Shuman, an expert at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Because if they had been detained [in Belarus], then the story would have turned out differently, the story wouldn’t have become public,” Shuman noted.
Kalesnikava’s now-known refusal to leave Belarus creates “a bigger problem for the authorities than if she were on the territory of an adjacent state,” agreed former diplomat Kovalevski.
On September 8, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States, “together with our partners and Allies,” is considering whether to introduce “additional targeted sanctions to promote accountability for those involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus.”
“We remind the Belarusian authorities of their responsibility to ensure the safety of Ms. Kalesnikava and all those unjustly detained,” Pompeo said.
The European Union has made similar demands.
But Lukashenka himself, now looking for support from a revived friendship with Moscow, does not appear concerned.
He told representatives of state-run Russian media on September 8 that he will not talk with the Coordination Council because he does not know “who are these people.”
Lukashenka, however, has reason to be acquainted with Pavel Latushka, who, apart from his ministerial and ambassadorial roles, also acted as Foreign Ministry spokesman under Lukashenka.
Latushka intends to put that background in international affairs to work now. He told Current Time that he plans to travel to Prague “as well as a series of other European countries” to discuss the government’s crackdown on the Coordination Council.
Meetings in Warsaw and Vilnius, where Tsikhanouskaya now lives, already have occurred, he said.
But nothing suggests that Lukashenka is inclined to add his own name to that meeting schedule.
Instead, to resolve Belarus’ political crisis, he repeated on September 8 promises for some form of constitutional reform and, later, a presidential election.
“Yes, it’s possible I sat [in the president’s chair] a little too long,” Lukashenka said in reference to his 26 years in power. “It’s possible that they’re showing me not only from television, but from an iron and a tea kettle …”
“But really, only I can now protect Belarusians.”