Maria Kolesnikova, a leader in the protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who was abducted by masked men on Monday, has been detained, according to reports, which detail the country’s latest attempt to silence and expel opposition.
Kolesnikova has been leading protests against Lukashenko, Belarus’s 26-year president whose re-election last month has been marred by accusations of fraud, sparking widespread national unrest and a subsequently harsh crackdown from the government.
Russian news agency Interfax reported that Kolesnikova purposefully ripped up her passport so she couldn’t be transported into Ukraine, preventing an attempted “forcible expulsion from her native country,” as described by Deputy Ukranian Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko on Facebook.
Prior to this report, the protest leader had been missing for 24 hours after a witness recounted seeing masked men in plain clothes confront Kolesnikova in front of Minsk’s National Art Museum, bundling her into a dark minivan and driving away quickly.
Two other leaders involved in the opposition-led Coordination Council, Anton Ronenkov and Ivan Krastov, also disappeared, but both arrived in Ukraine in the early hours of Tuesday, according to Ukraine’s border service.
Since refusing entry into Ukraine, Kolesnikova has been detained, Anton Bychkovsky of the Belarusian border service told Reuters, saying: “I can’t say concretely where she is, but she has been detained.”
Lukashenko told Russian reporters Tuesday that he will consider holding new elections following weeks of protests in Belarus.
“Maria Kolesnikova was not able to be removed from Belarus because this brave woman took action to prevent her movement across the border,” wrote Gerashchenko. “All responsibility for her life and health is personally carried by Alexander Lukashenko.”
Lukashenko, labeled “Europe’s last dictator” claimed victory over opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with almost 80% of the vote in early August, resulting in inflamed protests that Belarus has responded to through violence and widespread arrests. Opposition leaders have been pressured to leave to Poland or Lithuania. Kolesnikova was the last standing in Belarus of a trio of women leading the opposition against Lukashenko. The other two, Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, both already fled the country to avoid arrest after Lukashenko claimed victory.
Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius accused the Belarusian government of trying to eliminate the country’s opposition “one by one,” drawing connections with the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (N.K.V.D.), the precursor of the KGB. “The kidnapping of [Maria Kolesnikova] in downtown Minsk is a disgrace,” Linkevičius wrote. “Stalinist NKVD methods are being applied in 21st century’s Europe.”
“Belarus’s Unlikely Opposition Leader” (The Wall Street Journal)