BELARUSIAN PROTEST LEADER DETAINED AFTER ATTEMPTS TO CROSS THE BORDER
News regarding the abduction of Belarusian protest leader Maria Kolesnikova has spread like wildfire. It was reported by the Belarus border officials that Kolesnikova was detained by them at the Belarus-Ukraine border; no confirmation was given by officials regarding the whereabouts of the detainee.
The opposition movement stated that masked men had taken Kolesnikova from central Minsk and driven her off in a minivan on Monday. Shortly after this, two other activists disappeared as well. As said by the Ukrainian border service, “The two allies successfully crossed into Ukraine in the early hours of Tuesday morning.”
An eye witness of the apparent abduction has stated that Kolesnikova’s mobile had fallen in the tussle with the masked men, which was later picked up by one of them before the van raced away.
The settings placed for her attempted journey to Ukraine were not immediately clear, with some media reports initially suggesting that she had made it across the border. This assumption was later told to be incorrect by the border guards on both sides. The official Belta news agency quoted border officials who claim that the three had tried to cross the border in a BMW car about 4am on Tuesday.
They also alleged that the car had accelerated sharply after being confronted by a border guard. However, the speeding vehicle left without Kolesnikova, who had apparently been pushed out of the car.
"Kolesnikova has now been detained, I can't say concretely where she is, but she has been detained," Anton Bychkovsky, a representative of the Belarusian border service said. He also added, "She was detained in connection with the circumstances under which they (the group) left the territory of Belarus”.
The reasons for Kolesnikova’s “abduction”, if confirmed, will come forth as Belarusian authorities step up their efforts to try to bring protests to a standstill and obstruct the work of the opposition council. The opposition council said that two other activists, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, disappeared soon after her; they said that the authorities appeared to be systematically targeting its members.
Kolesnikova was the last of three female Belarusian politicians who joined forces before the August 9 presidential election to challenge the long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko. Kolesnikova and her supporters have openly accused the strongman of rigging his re-election, which he denies.
Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and has rejected calls for new elections. However, as the leader of the ruling party, Lukashenko receives strong support from his ally, Russian President Vladamir Putin, who has promised to send in police to support him if required.
During an interview with a Russian radio journalist on Tuesday, Lukashenko said that he would not step down from his post, despite the rushing wave of protests. He continued to say that early presidential elections would not be ruled out. Roman Babayan, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Talks radio station, said that Lukashenko has stated that his supporters would be attacked if he decided to leave.
Adding to the already brewing cup of unprecedented protests, political unrest spread when he claimed he had been re-elected with 80 per cent of the vote. The public took to the streets following this and protests gained immense momentum. Kolesnikova guided the demonstrators and rallied along with them on multiple occasions. On Sunday, security forces arrested 633 protesters following a mass anti-government rally. In their initial statement, Minsk Police said they had not arrested Kolesnikova.
Before the much-disputed August elections, Kolesnikova teamed up with opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo. They later left the country with the former moving to Lithuania.
Tsepkalo said that it wasn’t safe for any of the protesting leaders as the ruling party silences their voices by putting them in detention or in prison. These leaders have had to leave the country in several instances in the past as well.
"Lukashenko isolates the strongest leaders. During this presidential season, he has put two opposition leaders in prison. My husband is facing up to 15 years behind bars on criminal charges," she said.
Olga Kovalkova, another activist, arrived in Poland on Saturday, saying that she had been told she would be arrested if she continued her stay in Belarus.
Kolesnikova has remained a constant in the efforts being made to overthrow the ruling government. She had announced on August 31 that she was forming a new political party, along with the jailed opposition figure Viktor Babaryko with whom she had previously worked.
Principal analyst at the global consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft, Daragh McDowell, claims economic factors are playing a significant role in the demonstrations, with the country "rapidly running out of money".
"The IT sector has been repeatedly undermined with the internet shutdowns to disrupt the protesters. We've also seen a lot of strikes in the state-owned sector as well. So the Belarussian economy is really on the brink.The people have lost their fear of Lukashenko, he's lost a lot of his authority. No matter how many riot police he's deployed to the streets, it just hasn't stopped people from continuing to come out”, he told Al Jazeera.
As a result of the mammoth protests and the subsequent state of strife, a report of Central bank figures issued on Monday showed Belarus had burned through nearly one-sixth of its gold and foreign exchange reserves, or $1.4bn, in August. Three European Union diplomats told Reuters that the EU is now preparing to impose economic sanctions on 31 senior Belarus officials, including the interior minister, in response to the election and subsequent crackdown.
The web connecting the protests, the disappearing or fleeing opposition leaders and the interventions made by the Lukashenko government continues to expand. “Nothing is certain, but the uncertain” stays justified by the current state of the Belarusian Government.
Reporter- Sukruthi Sanampudi