Earlier this month, the Belarusian opposition activists, Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak, were sentenced to long prison terms on charges of conspiring to seize power and crimes against national security. Both Kolesnikova, a prominent musician, and Znak, a lawyer, are supporters of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against President Alexander Lukashenka in last year’s election and is now in exile in Lithuania. European Union countries have called for all political detainees, including Kolesnikova, to be released, but so far these calls have fallen on deaf ears. Alistair Burnett interviewed Maria Kolesnikova.
What is your response to the verdict and the 11-year sentence handed down to you?
My conscience is clear. We didn’t break the law. We followed the law at all the stages of the electoral campaign.
After the verdict, we applauded when the judges left the courtroom. They fulfilled their despicable role in this historical process – now this decision is on their conscience.
It is impossible to take the court and the verdict in any way seriously. This is not a verdict on Maxim and me but on the authorities themselves, on the system itself.
It is evidence not only of a legal default, but of a system-wide default. I feel sorry for those who did not understand what happened and did not learn history’s lessons.
Your trial was held behind closed doors and you were charged with conspiring to seize power and crimes against national security. What can you tell us about the prosecution’s case against you?
If there had been any evidence against us, the trial would have been open.
The very existence of accusations like this denies people the potential to participate in election campaigning and in political activity generally. It also prohibits public criticism of the authorities.
Such a judgment and verdict is a Pandora’s box with far-reaching negative consequences.
After the crackdown over last year’s protests and now your sentencing, what is the state of the opposition within Belarus?
I am in prison, so it is hard for me to judge objectively people’s attempts to fight for their freedom and basic human rights. According to what I see on TV, as well as the mood of those few people I have had a chance to talk to, I can say that the authorities are scared by the people’s activism.
They understand that though they can put down protests, they can’t change people’s mindsets. I see the fear in their eyes. I also believe that even those outside of Belarus can do a lot, and it’s important to continue opposition activity both inside and outside the country.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been visiting European countries and the United States to maintain their support. Has international pressure, including from human rights groups, had any effect on the Lukashenka government?
I will use this opportunity to say hi to Sviatlana: ‘You are amazing. Keep it up.’
I’m sure Lukashenka is scared. He turned from a person who meets presidents to talk about Ukraine into an outcast no one wants to shake hands with.
It is traumatic for him, but the fear will pass. He will get used to it.
That is why it’s important to think about the next step, to understand what American and European partners are ready to offer Lukashenka in return for him to change course. If they aren’t ready to offer him anything – it’s important to know how long they are ready to maintain the pressure.
It concerns Russia as well. Maybe they simply don’t understand that Lukashenka and his government are in a bad way.
To what extent do you believe the futures of the Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin are now intertwined?
Lukashenka is a famous manipulator. Almost 30 years in power has made his self-preservation instincts automatic. It’s a tactical choice. There’s nothing behind it besides the willingness to stay in power till he dies.
But a trapped person is a dangerous and unreliable partner. It won’t remain like this for a long time. His partners will sooner or later face unpleasant surprises.
What can the international community do?
Hundreds of political prisoners, thousands in exile, tens of thousands arrested, fined, subjected to violence, and the media and businesses are being destroyed. The authorities are at war with their own people and leading the country into an abyss.
The support of the international community is very important for Belarusians. We need to look for an opportunity to start a dialogue, both within the country and with international partners.
Why did last year’s protests last as long as they did? Was it the relative youth of the protesters; the use of social media; the prominence of women; and did COVID restrictions play any part?
For me, the protests aren’t the main thing. The transformation of Belarusian society is the most important thing.
Most Belarusians decided what they want to see in their county: Belarus as a free, democratic, sovereign country. And the current authorities aren’t able to provide that.
Regarding new technology, of course, it gives more opportunities for people to organize, however, social media users are still the minority in Belarus. Everything happened on a deeper level after being built up over time through people’s real-life experience.
Throughout the campaign, I have been surprised by the fact that most of the activists are middle-aged people from different professions. There were plenty of women who expressed their objection first.
Through the situation with COVID, we gained a new experience of solidarity and mutual assistance, so when the government turned against the people, we realized then how many we were.
Looking back now at the protests, would you do anything differently and have you learned lessons for the future?
We definitely have more appreciation for what we already have. We appreciate our amazing journalists, our civil society, and private businesses. And, of course, our upcoming victory.
What could we have done differently? We could have been more consistent in terms of our willingness to resolve the crisis quickly and painlessly for the country. We were calling for dialogue in August, and then we had this unfortunate period of ultimatums that damaged both sides.
The situation is different now, and everything is more complicated. The moment has gone, and I don’t think that negotiation or national dialogue in the form we expected a year ago is possible anymore.
We had to make very hard choices many times, but the most important thing is that we never deviated from our principles and values - the fairness of the law, kindness, respect and love. I believe it is the only right way.
How can you now achieve your goal of removing President Lukashenka from power?
To be a politician in Belarus nowadays means to be in prison. In this way, I can contribute to the common endeavor. It’s not our objective, though.
Our objective is a country free of current and future forms of authoritarianism.
How to free the country? On the one hand, we all have to maintain our effort, cohesion and solidarity. We should try not to lose that. On the other hand, we should focus on limiting the political space for the government. We should show that the system will have to deal with us, the Belarusians.
Thirdly, we have to think about the future of Belarus. We have to dream about it, believe in it and stay active. Everything is up to us.
You were a musician before becoming active in politics. Has music shaped your approach to political activism and have you had the chance to continue playing in detention?
The artistic path shapes the personality. Of course, teamwork, looking for unusual solutions, and the ability to stay concentrated and work for a long time in critical situations, as well as performing in public, is what I’ve been learning my whole life as a musician.
Management of contemporary art projects and partnerships with businesses, like with Viktar Babaryka, the former presidential candidate, for example, gave me even more experience.
I miss music a lot, but in Belarusian prisons, even books aren’t really allowed. I don’t have an opportunity to play.
Do you have any regrets about your decision to become involved in opposition politics?
I consider my decision to participate in the campaign the most important and responsible one of my life. I knew it would be hard, but the future of the nation is at stake. So it’s worth it. My love for Belarus and Belarusian people didn’t allow me to stay aloof.