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Belarus' freedom 'can't be broken with police batons'

Alexandra Boguslavskaya
August 14, 2020

After days of violent protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, DW spoke to opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova about Belarus' political future — and her hope that the country will never be the same.

People hold a banner with portraits of from left, Maria Kolesnikova, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Grits

Maria Kolesnikova is one of a three opposition leaders who have been pushing to oust longtime president Alexander Lukashenko. She is a close ally of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher who ran for president on a platform of holding new free and fair elections.

Read more: EU foreign ministers green light new Belarus sanctions

Kolesnikova headed the campaign of opposition candidate Viktor Babariko, who was arrested on fraud charges critics say were politically motivated. Kolesnikova spoke with DW at Babariko's campaign office.

DW: You consider Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to be the democratically elected president of Belarus, even though the Central Electoral Commission has just announced that she only received just over 10% of the vote according to their final count. Why is that?

Maria Kolesnikova
'Like the majority of Belarusians, I consider that Sviatlana won these elections': KolesnikovaImage: picture-alliance/AP/S. Grits

Just like the majority of Belarusians, I consider that Sviatlana won these elections. It's another question that the elections weren't honest from the beginning. And, of course, the current acting president is not legitimate.

We know that Sviatlana got the majority of the votes. The reaction of the citizens of our country to the lies that the Central Electoral Commission is putting out show that as well. When they say that the acting president allegedly received 80% of the votes, that is a total lie. If that were true, the government wouldn't have to fight against its own people for five days in a row, they wouldn't have to drown the people's dissent in blood. 

Read more: Opinion: For Belarus, it's now or never

On social media, some people have condemned the fact that Tsikhanouskaya left the country this week, calling her actions a betrayal. What do you think about that?

I don't think her actions were a betrayal. I think all of Sviatlana's actions in the past three months have been heroic. I personally completely support Sviatlana. My team supports her decision.

Read more: Optimism for Belarus 'is now gone' — Norway's top diplomat

It's anyone's guess what she might have been discussing for three hours with high-ranking officials from the security services, when she actually came to the offices of the Central Electoral Commission in order to lodge a complaint [about the election results — Editor's note].

There has been unprecedented pressure on Sviatlana for the past three months and the government was clearly trying to put her under pressure in this case as well. That is why I support Sviatlana — I tell her that she is a hero.

A person holding sign with an image of a bloodied Lukashenko and the caption "Go away"
Protesters have taken to the street of Belarus calling on Lukashenko to 'Go away!'Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Leskiec

Two of your closest allies, Tsikhanouskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo [the wife of Valery Tsepkalo, an opposition candidate who fled the country ahead of the elections — Editor's note] have left Belarus. You are the only one from the united opposition campaign who has remained in the country. And you were arrested just before election day, then the authorities said they had arrested the wrong person and let you go. Are you not afraid that you could be arrested again — and that you might not be let out so quickly?

Read more: Svetlana Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: The teacher challenging Lukashenko

From the first day when I started working on this campaign three months ago, I have been under no illusions about what the acting government is capable of and what could happen. Now is a really difficult moment in Belarusian history, and every Belarusian is in the same situation as I am. Anyone can be arrested on the street, in the entryway to their apartments or even at home.

But knowing that doesn't stop me or scare me. I know that the changes that are happening in Belarusian society can no longer be reversed. That means we have already won. It will just take some time for the changes taking place to evolve within society.

Veronika Tsepkalo, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Maria Kolesnikova raise their joined hands at a campaign rally
Tsepkalo (left) and Tsikhanouskaya (middle) have left Belarus while Kolesnikova is still in the countryImage: picture-alliance/AP/S. Grits

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has published a video address in which she called on the mayors of Belarusian cities to organize public meetings with people this weekend. You recently talked about the same thing. What do you expect to come out of these meetings?

These meetings are a legal way for the citizens of all the cities of Belarus to go to a legal demonstration without having the threat of being beaten up hanging over them. Why do we need these meetings? We are trying to initiate dialogue between Belarusian civil society and the government. They need to hear what their people are saying.

During the presidential campaign, you were one of the figures uniting Belarusians who want change. But during the spontaneous protests, you and other opposition figures seem to have become observers rather than protest leaders. Do you agree?

That's hard to say. From the beginning of our campaign, we all agreed that we would not call on people to take to the streets and that we wouldn't organize protests.

But what is happening now is probably the direct result of our work. Over the past three months, we have managed to do what everyone else failed to do for the past 26 years. We have managed to consolidate people around us, around our ideas, around our principles. We managed to give people the belief that they can change their own future. That is actually much more important than organizing a demonstration.

I personally attended the protests, I saw what horrible violence people have faced, how they were beaten, how they were stuffed into police vans and cars. We hope that the government will hear people's demands and will stop using force against them. But we don't have any illusions. We don't know what will happen today, tomorrow or the day after. We are calling for [calm from] all sides.

The representatives of the security forces are responsible for the violence. They should know that everything is being documented, that in the internet era it is impossible to hide anything. These people have to go home to their families, their children have to go to school with the children of people they beat and dragged into police cars. They need to know that and need to stop their violence if they want to live in a peaceful Belarus. We are prepared for dialogue with anyone who is prepared to sit down and talk, including with representatives of the government and the security forces.

Maria Kolesnikova makes a heart with her hands walking in the street
Kolesnikova said she is prepared to talk to anyone interested in peaceImage: DW/P. Bykovskiy

Can you still imagine a scenario in which things go back to how they were in Belarus?

In the past three months, I have seen new Belarusians. I see how we have all changed, together. I see hope in people's eyes. People believe that they can change things. For the first time in many years, maybe even decades or centuries, Belarusians feel freedom and dignity. And that can't be broken with police batons. That is the birth of a nation. It makes me happy to be a Belarusian.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.