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No, the terror in Belarus is not going to stop

Lukashenko’s ruthless actions against dissidents are intended to instil fear – and bring Belarusian society into a state of absolute submission

Igor Ilyash
10 September 2021, 12.58pm
Maxim Znak and Maria Kolesnikova in court
(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On Monday, news from Belarus spread around the world that a Minsk court had sentenced an opposition leader, Maria Kolesnikova, and a prominent lawyer, Maxim Znak. to 11 and ten years in prison respectively.

The trial was held behind closed doors, without access for the press or observers. Even the pair’s relatives were not allowed to attend the trial – and were only allowed access when the verdict was announced.

Kolesnikova and Znak were convicted of “conspiracy to seize state power”, “creating an extremist organisation” and “actions aimed at harming national security”.

The sentence was handed down just over a year after protests were held across Belarus against the falsification of election results. But beyond that, all we know about the trial comes from the Belarusian authorities’ official statements.

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According to the Belarusian General Prosecutor’s Office, Znak and Kolesnikova’s “conspiracy” was as follows: in the wake of the country’s August 2020 presidential elections, widely believed to have been falsified, both refused to recognise the election results and positioned themselves as “representatives of the overwhelming majority of Belarusian citizens”.

‘Inciting hostility in society’

Znak and Kolesnikova, prosecutors claimed, called for Belarusian workers to strike, and then set up an opposition body, the Coordination Council, allegedly to “coordinate protest activity” and “incite hostility in society”.

In effect, according to General Prosecutor’s Office statements, Kolesnikova and Znak are guilty of publicly criticising the Belarusian authorities and supporting the peaceful protests that emerged after the elections.

Angelika Kurchak, the general prosecutor’s spokesperson, put it like this: “[Kolesnikova and Znak] knew from the very beginning what they were getting involved in… This is a war, only in new conditions. And now there’s an attempt to conquer the country –⁠ only not with weapons, but words.”

The few scenes from the courtroom that did make it out show Kolesnikova dancing and smiling behind bars –⁠ a living embodiment of the new era in Belarus, one that continues despite Lukashenko’s repressive grip on the nation.

Protest in Belarus, September 2020
Public Domain / Jana Shnipelson

“Hammer, hammer, hammer…”

Kolesnikova and Znak’s path to the forefront of Belarus’ political crisis was largely accidental.

Both of them were successful in their careers (cultural and legal work, respectively) and until last year had nothing to do with politics. In May 2020, a few months before the election, Kolesnikova and Znak joined the team of ex-banker Viktor Babariko, who announced his ambition to become president.

One month later, on 18 June, Babaryko and his son Eduard, who headed his father’s campaign headquarters, were arrested, and the following month Belarus’ central election commission refused to register the former chairman of Belgazprombank as a candidate. These dramatic events brought Kolesnikova and Znak to the fore: they tried to take advantage of the significant electoral potential that Babariko had been able to accumulate in a matter of weeks.

In July of 2020, Babariko’s team and the team of another unregistered candidate, Valery Tsepkalo, united around the campaign of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of blogger and former presidential candidate Sergei Tikhanovsky.

The triumvirate of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo (Valery’s campaigning wife) and Maria Kolesnikova turned out to be incredibly successful; they gathered the largest election rallies in the history of Belarus and became a living embodiment of the faith that Belarusian society suddenly had in change.

Maria’s charisma shone through during this time of tumult. Her bright smile, her trademark sign (making a heart with her hands), her phrase to a crowd of protesters in September (“You are unbelievable!”) and her call to protesters “to hammer, hammer and hammer the regime” have become symbols of Belarus’ revolution.

Maria Kolesnikova makes her trademark "heart" sign on her way to an interrogation
(c) Alamy Stock Photo / Reuters. All rights reserved

Yet, after the elections on 9 August, this triumvirate fell apart. Tikhanovskaya and the Tsepkalos, fearing for their lives, were forced to leave the country.

The protesters, it seemed at that moment, were winning. The authorities were shocked by the scale of popular resistance. Indeed, the security forces had, for a time, disappeared from Belarusian streets.

On 17 August, on the initiative of Tikhanovskaya’s team, the opposition announced it was setting up a “Coordination Council”. The council’s leaders included Kolesnikova, Znak, as well as the director of the Kupalovsky Theatre, former diplomat Pavel Latushko, who went over to the side of the protesters, Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, and others, including Sergei Dylevsky, a strike leader from Minsk.

The Coordination Council announced that the only way to overcome the political crisis in Belarus was to immediately start negotiations with the authorities on holding new elections. But Lukashenko did not even think about sitting down at the negotiating table. Instead, he called members of the council “Nazis” and accused them of attempting to seize power.

First press conference of the opposition Coordination Council, August 2020
CC BY SA 4.0 Coordination Council / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

A game without rules

What happened with the Coordination Council was symptomatic of the confrontation between the Lukashenko regime and Belarus’ “new” opposition in 2020.

Babariko’s team believed that the dictatorship could be beaten on its own ground and according to its rules (even if the rules were dishonest). Their thinking was that if the authorities refuse permission for protest rallies, then you should not call people to unauthorised protests or organise them. They wanted to ensure that the regime was not given even the slightest pretext for repression. Kolesnikova and Znak tried to operate in this same vein.

Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994
Image: President of Belarus

For example, in the first week after the elections, Sasha Romanova, head of independent media outlet Kyky.org, recalled asking Kolesnikova to organise a march to the KGB prison where Viktor and Eduard Babariko were being held.

The public mood was at a peak after the mass police violence that followed the “results”, and as Romanova remembered, “workers were banging their helmets on the ground, TV hosts were resigning from state media”.

“[Kolesnikova] objected,” Romanova said. “The [Babariko] team should not announce these kind of plans publicly, because this would guarantee arrest and criminal charges of ‘seizing power.’”

“She could only appear at rallies without warning and be their symbol,” Romanova concluded.

The Coordination Council came to embody this cautious strategy. The council failed to position itself as an alternative government and did not demand that the regime transfer power to them (contrary to Lukashenko’s statements).

Declarations simply ignored

When the momentum shifted from the regime to the protesters in mid-August 2020, the council sidestepped taking decisive action or even trying to lead the protests. As a result, the council’s actions boiled down to declarative statements and calls for negotiations, which the authorities simply ignored.

However, in the emerging electoral revolution, the very appearance of a body that sought to represent the interests of Belarusian society was a threat to Lukashenko. “I want to warn the people who joined this council that we will take adequate measures,” he threatened on 18 August.

Znak was detained a few weeks later, on 9 September. Two days prior, security services had abducted Kolesnikova in the centre of Minsk. They threatened her with 25 years in prison; if she did not leave Belarus voluntarily, she would be forced out: “alive or in parts”.

Along with two of her associates, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, Kolesnikova was forcibly brought to Belarus’ border with Ukraine. However, at the border crossing, Kolesnikova ripped up her passport and jumped out of the car. Lukashenko had to absurdly justify himself to journalists: claiming that Kolesnikova had wanted to voluntarily leave for Ukraine, but for some reason her associates “threw her out of the car”.

Screen Shot 2021-09-09 at 13.01.16.png
CCTV footage of the car carrying Kolesnikova at the Belarus-Ukraine border
Image: YouTube

While Kolesnikova’s actions catapulted her to hero status in the eyes of protesters, it also lined her up on a collision course with Lukashenko. Her soaring popularity meant Lukashenko could not allow her to remain free.

Belarus’ Investigative Committee announced that Kolesnikova and Znak were detained as part of a criminal investigation into “public calls for actions aimed at causing harm to national security”.

Five months later, when mass protests had been suppressed in the country, charges of “conspiracy: and the creation of an “extremist organisation” were also brought.

By that time, the rest of the Coordination Council members had already been outside Belarus for a long time.

Reviving Stalinism

Speaking to journalists after the trial, Znak’s father, Alexander, noted that his son took the verdict in his stride. “Not a single muscle on his face trembled,” he said.

“It seemed to me that they were ready. Perhaps they even assumed that they would get a longer term,” he added.

The harsh sentence came as little surprise to anyone in Belarus – it was the logical continuation of a year of mass repression.

In the year after the elections, more than 4,690 people have or are facing politically motivated prosecution in Belarus. More than 600 people are currently recognised as political prisoners.

In Belarus, people are now prosecuted for participating not just in protests, journalism or civic activities, but “political” graffiti and drawings, comments and emojis – even jokes.

More concerning is that the Belarusian judicial system is now increasingly generating “Stalinist” prison sentences for political prisoners, especially when it comes to opposition leaders.

On the road to the Belarusian presidential residence, 2020
(c) gidenoia / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Double-digit jail terms

Co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democratic Party, Pavel Sevyarynets, who was arrested two months before the 2020 elections, received seven years in prison. Viktor Babariko received 14 years. Blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky and Nikolai Statkevich, an “old” opposition leader, are now being tried behind closed doors in a pre-trial detention centre in Gomel. They are also facing double-digit prison terms.

The course towards building a totalitarian state, taken by Lukashenko in the summer of 2020, presupposes demonstrative cruelty towards the regime’s opponents. For the future of the dictatorship, this is essential. W​ith the electoral revolution having taken place, the only way to retain power is through terror.

Each arrest and sentence is now viewed not just as a way to isolate an individual, but an attempt to intimidate society as a whole. The disproportionate harshness of every verdict is designed to shock the public in a way that it will break their will to resist.

While Belarusian society is undoubtedly gripped by unprecedented fear, it has not yet begun to cower. The trial of Kolesnikova and Znak – as well as many others – will be remembered not only for its monstrous verdict, but also the incredible resilience of the defendants themselves.

“I saw our children as people who feel free and innocent... I did not notice signs of depression and conciliation,” said Kolesnikova’s father, Alexander.

“They are ready to defend their rights further.”

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