The face of Maria Kolesnikova became known in half the world together with that of the Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tijanóvskaya and that of Verónika Tsepkalo. Together they formed the trio of opponents who stood up to Aleksandr Lukashenko, the Belarusian authoritarian leader who believes that a woman cannot be president. Today, when Belarus is experiencing the biggest protests in its history, Kolesnikova is the only one of the famous troika left in the country, after Tijanóvskaya had to go into exile in Lithuania and Tsepkalo went to Poland. And, for now, despite the persecution of the Lukashenko regime, she has no plans to leave. “I am not afraid to walk the streets, nor to say what I think, I feel totally supported by the Belarusian citizens; we are the voice of the majority ”, emphasizes this 38-year-old musician, who lived in Germany for more than a decade and made a career there as a culture manager before the opposition banker Víktor Babariko sign up, first to direct one of his artistic projects and, later, to direct his electoral campaign.
Kolesnikova is one of the promoters of the coordinating council of the persecuted opposition, which seeks a dialogue with the authorities. And along with the most visible heads of that committee – among which is the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich – she faces a criminal process; Lukashenko accuses them of wanting to “seize power”. Now, together with Víktor Babariko’s team, prosecuted for fraud and in a KGB (Belarusian intelligence services) prison since June, he is creating a political party – Vmeste (Together) – in a country that has not registered new formations in two decades. The announcement, which has already triggered some friction with Tijanóvskaya, may open a small crack in the hitherto united opposition; although both Kolesnikova and her team insist that they all pursue the same goal: clean elections, this time, clean; and the release of political prisoners
Walking through the streets of Minsk with the opponent is to stop almost at every step. Many congratulate her. Some cars honk their horns to greet her, and Kolesnikova – who stops to speak to almost everyone – responds by forming a heart with both hands, the symbol she adopted during the campaign and which is now on posters, mobile screensavers or stickers; her artistic background has had a great weight in electoral events. “We have a huge internal problem, a very serious political crisis, a legal default since the laws that they themselves have invented do not work. The economic crisis has begun, the Belarusian ruble is collapsing. All of this adds up to a kind of puzzle. Citizens can no longer do it; they have said enough “, says the opposition. With her characteristic very short blonde hair and always dressed casually in some white garment and something red – like the traditional Belarusian flag that has become a symbol of the opposition – she attends almost all protests against electoral fraud and marches together to the citizens. Despite having received threats, he refuses to hire security personnel.
Kolesnikova always insists that “you cannot give in to provocation” and fears that at some point there will be “artificial” riots that Lukashenko will use as an “excuse” to apply his iron fist more forcefully and return to the policy of mass arrests. and police brutality, like the first
of the protests, where there were 7,000 detainees, hundreds injured and at least four dead.
The trio of opponents has mobilized all of civil society, but women are playing a prominent role, leading some marches and trying to prevent, with human chains, the arrest of peaceful protesters. And that, against a leader who has been characterized by his macho comments, has something poetic. Especially because, acknowledges Kolesnikova, Belarus is a very patriarchal country. “Lukashenko with her stupid statements, calling us poor and disrespecting a woman has done more for feminism in this country than all the feminists among whom I find myself. The history of feminism is a long process, not everyone will become a feminist in a blink of an eye, but it insulted women and perhaps for the first time in their lives many – and many – realized that we have the same rights as men; and they took to the streets ”, says the former flutist, who also studied conducting and who even played in the Presidential Orchestra of Belarus.
“Lukashenko lives in an alternative reality,” he already sums up in the workcenter of white walls and industrial decoration that has been the headquarters of the trio during the presidential elections. It was from Kolesnikova that the idea of uniting the three campaigns – that of Babariko and that of the other opponent came from. strong, Valery Tsepkalo, to Tijanóvskaya’s, the only one who could register as a candidate. “What is happening comes from afar. Five years ago Lukashenko was the legally elected president because the majority supported him; although it was not 80% but 52%. In the last six months, with the arrests of critical voices and the harassment of citizens for participating in campaign events, trust and support have been plummeting faster, ”he told El País a few days before announcing the formation of the Vmeste party.
What has finished opening the eyes of society, Kolesnikova believes, is the management of the coronavirus pandemic, which in Belarus – where no confinement was decreed or borders were closed and practically only undercover security agents wear masks – is like if it did not officially exist. “The Government has distanced itself from the people and with the covid-19, with a president who has disrespected the sick and deceased by the virus and has tried to silence its consequences ‘by prescribing’ stupid things like drinking vodka with cucumber or carving land with a tractor, Belarusian society has realized that the state does not protect them. Belarusians no longer feel safe with Lukashenko, and security is an important element; the safer you feel, the more difficult it is for people to go out onto the streets ”, he remarks.
The Belarusian leader accuses Kolesnikova, the rest of the opposition and the citizens of being “puppets financed” by the West and by NATO to overthrow him. Before the elections, he pointed to Moscow as the architect of this “plot”, but now he assures that his critics want to distance Minsk from Russia and get closer to the European Union. Something that the opponent tries to deny thoroughly. “This is not about Russia or the EU; goes from Belarus. Citizens are now concerned about their own problems and not about the problems of other countries ”, insists Kolesnikova, also aware of the balance between accepting the messages of support that other countries have given her and going one step further. The European Union, which is preparing to approve new sanctions for officials of the Lukashenko regime, has also provided financial aid – although it remains to be seen how it will be channeled – for those who have suffered repression and for the independent media. “It is good that they can support the victims and other civil initiatives, but we cannot accept help from outside and we do not, otherwise someone could strive to consider it an interference in State affairs,” emphasizes Kolesnikova.