Belarus Detains Opposition Leader as Critics Forced Abroad

Belarus said Maria Kalesnikava, one of the Belarusian opposition’s top organizers, was detained at the border with Ukraine as President Alexander Lukashenko targets the leaders of month-long protests against his 26-year rule.

Belarus tried to expel Kalesnikava and two colleagues, according to opposition activists and Ukrainian officials. Brought forcibly to the frontier by Belarusian security forces around 4am, Kalesnikava tore up her passport and climbed out the window of the vehicle to prevent the agents from forcing her out of the country, according to the colleagues.

Lukashenko told Russian media Tuesday that Kalesnikava was arrested after being pushed out of their car as the three members of the unified opposition’s coordination council tried to flee Belarus illegally during the night.

The Belarusian president has shown no sign of conceding to opposition demands that he step down and call new elections. Instead, police renewed a crackdown on protesters as rallies in the country’s capital, Minsk, swelled to about 100,000 people on Sunday, and targeted individual organizers.

‘Forced Expulsion’

“This wasn’t a voluntary exit, it was a forced expulsion,” Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Anton Herashchenko said on Facebook. Lukashenko must answer for Kalesnikava’s “life and health” after “this brave woman took actions” to prevent her deportation, he wrote.

A growing number of opposition activists have said they were forced to leave the country in recent days under threat from law enforcement. On Monday, the coordinating council said presidium member Kalesnikava, spokesman Anton Radniankou and executive secretary Ivan Krautsou were missing after being abducted by unknown people in Minsk.

In Kyiv Tuesday, Krautsou and Radniankou told a press conference they had been detained by Belarusian security agents threatening them with prosecution if they didn’t cooperate in a plan to force Kalesnikava to leave the country. They agreed.

Brought by the agents to the neutral zone between Belarusian and Ukrainian border posts, the two were put in Krautsou’s car to cross into Ukraine. But when the security forces pushed Kalesnikava into the back seat, she tore her passport to shreds and climbed out the back window. Belarusian agents detained her on the road back toward her homeland.

“Maria is a real hero,” Radniankou said. “She repeatedly said she would never leave the country under any circumstances.”

Radniankou said he and Krautsou fled for the Ukrainian border after Kalesnikava was detained, fearing Belarusian agents would try to pick them up again, as well.

Lukashenko has blamed the unrest -- which began when he claimed a landslide victory in the Aug. 9 presidential election -- on Western powers and sought support from his neighbor, Vladimir Putin. He’s set to meet the Russian leader in Moscow in the coming days.

‘Too Long’

“Yes, maybe I have stayed on a little too long,” Lukashenko said, according to Govorit Moskva, one of the four Russia media outlets that interviewed him Tuesday. “But I’m really the only one who can defend Belarusians now.”

Kalesnikava’s team hasn’t received any official information on her whereabouts and called on the authorities to release her, according to a statement in Telegram.

“I am happy that Masha played out her clever plans and emerged as the victor in this situation,” Maksim Znak, a lawyer and council member said in a Facebook post.

Several key figures of the opposition were jailed before the election, including ex-banker Viktor Babariko -- whose campaign team Kalesnikava was part of -- and political blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, whose wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya became the leading challenger to Lukashenko and the face of the protests. She is now in exile in Lithuania.

With protests and calls for strikes slowing Belarus’s economy, the nation’s central bank burned through $1.4 billion of its foreign currency reserves to prop up the country’s ruble in August, the biggest monthly decline in reserves since 2009.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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