Human Rights

Maria Kolesnikova: A heart for Belarus

Published : September 28, 2021 17:40 IST

Jailed Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova has remained defiant in face of her harsh sentence. Photo: Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

Maria Kolesnikova has defied violence and threats. Now, behind bars, she's received an award for defending human rights.

The sentencing was a rare opportunity for the public to see Maria Kolesnikova, who had spent nearly a year in pretrial detention. On September 6, a court in Minsk sentenced the opposition politician to 11 years in a penal colony on charges including "extremism."

Her colleague, Maksim Znak, got one year less. The pair, who challenged Belarus' disputed presidential election, remained defiant in the face of the harsh sentence. Kolesnikova smiled into the cameras and contorted her handcuffed hands to form the shape of a heart, one of her trademark messages.

Some three weeks later, the opposition figure is once again in the spotlight. This week, the Council of Europe announced in Strasbourg that Kolesnikova had been awarded this year's Vaclav Havel Prize for Human Rights. The prize, worth €60,000 ($70,290), is awarded by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe together with Prague's Václav Havel Library and the Charter 77 Foundation for "outstanding civil society action in the defense of human rights." The first winner was Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, who was given the honor in 2013.

Leading from the front

In the summer of 2020, Kolesnikova rose to become one of the most recognizable faces of the opposition movement that has accused President Alexander Lukashenko of rigging the August 9 election. She was always at the forefront of protests in the capital Minsk, always appeared to be in a good mood, laughing and smiling, almost as if her positivity would edge out the former Soviet republic's authoritarian ruler, who has been in power since 1994.

In an interview with DW before the election, Kolesnikova said it was always clear to her that she could be arrested at any time. "But, that doesn't stop me or scare me. That's because I know that changes that have begun in Belarusian society are inevitable." One of the biggest challenges for Kolesnikova was her desire to mobilize citizens against Lukashenko without formally assuming a leadership position. She wanted to avoid arrest. But, in the end, it didn't help.

The 39-year-old is the only one of the former female opposition leadership trio who has remained in Belarus. The other two, including presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, now live in exile abroad. Kolesnikova was also pressured to leave the country. She was kidnapped by masked men, members of Belarusian security forces in September 2020 and taken to the border with Ukraine. But Kolesnikova tore up her passport and climbed out of the car, said those with her when it happened. She wanted to stay in the country.

An indomitable spirit

Before the protests against Lukashenko began, only a few people knew the name of the professional flutist and cultural manager who had studied music in Minsk and in the German city of Stuttgart. She was involved in music projects and promoted artist exchanges between Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Germany.

In an interview with DW, Martin Schüttler, a professor at the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart, described Kolesnikova as an "incredibly strong personality." Schüttler was invited by Kolesnikova to a workshop with concerts in Minsk. "She is unbelievably optimistic, hands-on, active and full of energy," he said. "She is almost unstoppable," Schüttler added, "no matter what she does."

Kolesnikova herself also enjoyed taking to the stage. She founded the lecture series "Music Lessons for Adults," and in 2017 spoke about Beethoven and Pussy Riot in an event she called "Music and Politics."

Kolesnikova's German colleague, Christine Fischer, director of the ECLAT festival, said she had always been a politician on the inside. Speaking to DW, Fischer recalled that the role of women was an issue that was especially important to Kolesnikova. "She organized women's performances in Minsk that served as the role model for society." Kolesnikova, Fischer said, knew exactly what she wanted.

Backing an ex-banker against Lukashenko

Kolesnikova delved into politics when prominent banker Viktor Babariko made the shock announcement about his presidential candidacy in May 2020 — and asked his friend to join the campaign. Babariko was the former top manager of Belgazprombank — the Belarusian branch of a bank belonging to Russian energy giant Gazprom — and a patron of the arts, whom Kolesnikova said she had met through her projects. The unlikely candidate quickly gained support. But he was soon arrested for alleged economic crimes, along with his son who had managed his campaign. In July 2021, Babariko was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

She eventually joined forces with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who entered the race after her husband, a prominent video blogger, was also arrested and barred from running. Together with others, Kolesnikova was involved in the Belarusian opposition's seven-member Coordination Council, which also included Nobel literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich. After the disputed election, the committee was broken up, with most members being arrested or forced into exile. The entire committee was crushed — as was the opposition movement. These days, there are hardly any organized protests in the country due to the violent crackdown.

From abroad, Tsikhanouskaya and supporters are calling for the release of opposition prisoners like Kolesnikova. "The regime wants us to see them crushed & exhausted. But look - they are smiling & dancing," wrote Tsikhanouskaya in a tweet after Kolesnikova and her colleague's sentencing. "They know - we will release them much earlier than these 11 years. Their terms shouldn't frighten us – Maksim and Maria wouldn't want this."

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