Belarusian protest leader Maria Kolesnikova says country must be prepared for the long game

Maria Kolesnikova, the last of dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s three female adversaries to remain in Belarus, admits to apprehension as she checks her lipstick and peers out of the back window onto the square that fronts Zhlobin’s Palace of Culture.

“It’s going to be different today,” she says. “I can feel it.”

Kolesnikova, 38, has already received several phone calls warning of the trouble that might lie ahead, as we drive the two-and-a-half hours south of the capital. BMZ, the town’s steelworks, was one of the first to answer calls for a national strike, but the Lukashenko regime is fighting dirty with threats to workers and anyone supporting them – some have already been arrested. Riot police are promised.

The immediate scene is menacing enough. The square is empty, bar for two-dozen police officers. But soon enough a cry of “Maria!” pierces through. In a flash, several hundred locals have appeared from nowhere, swarming onto the square to mob the unlikely revolutionary leader. “Lukashenko u-kho-di” they cry out. Lukashenko – resign!

What follows is a piece of comedic theatre. A small group assembles in a line behind Kolesnikova, with a busy woman weaving in amongst them to hand them Belarusian state flags, symbols of the Lukashenko regime. The group’s apparent leader – a rounded, short man, red in face and shirt, and with a megaphone in hand – climbs on a plinth.

“Maria Kolesnikova and the opposition have problems and they know it,” he roars.

The villain of the piece is drowned out by boos, hisses, and more chants for Lukashenko to leave. Kolesnikova meanwhile calls for calm. “Lukashenko is trying to make us quarrel with each other,” she says. “Let’s show people we can talk to each other and that we all want the same things.”

In the car with Ms Kolesnikova on the way back – as we discover the man was a local police officer dressing down for the occasion – Kolesnikova says she understood it was an act of deliberate provocation. “They are doing everything to intimidate the people, but they still come and we have a job to support them and keep the calm.”

Belarus’s revolutionary leadership has made non-violent protest a cornerstone of its challenge to Alexander Lukashenko.

This has largely held despite appalling provocations from the country’s 26-year leader: stealing an election from challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya; unleashing Gestapo-type policing; detaining thousands; killing at least four and torturing hundreds in some of the grimmest scenes of recent European history.

But with the protests losing momentum amid a cunning fightback by Lukashenko’s machine, many worry the peace will not hold for long.

Nationwide strikes, the most effective element of the resistance, don’t seem to hold much promise. Several hundred workers at the Zhlobin steel plant have downed tools – but like elsewhere, are reporting increasing intimidation. Only a small percentage say they are ready to go to the end, with generally only the youngest and ultra-committed holding out.

Law enforcement officers are seen during an opposition demonstration at the Independence Square in Minsk on Saturday (Reuters)

Kolesnikova agrees the campaign to remove Lukashenko has entered a new phase of near stalemate. But she says any “temporary difficulties” need to be seen in the context of “seismic” changes in the Belarusian mindset that have already occurred.

“Three months ago, you couldn’t imagine even 20 people coming out to protest on the square in Zhlobin,” she says. “We understand victory isn’t coming tomorrow, but it will come eventually – in a month or in six.”

But Kolesnikova concedes there is no plan or roadmap to that victory. Like everything else that has happened in Belarus during a remarkable few months, progress would happen “spontaneously”, she believes.

“Look, we had no plans for the strikes, but they happened because workers couldn’t stand to see people being beaten up,” she says. “The only thing we ever planned for was giving people a sense of self-respect. And that’s the unstoppable force that is driving everything else on.”

Kolesnikova came to prominence in July as part of a daring three-pronged female challenge to Belarus’s unchanging president. Up until last summer, she was a professional musician in Germany but was invited to Minsk to run a cultural hub by Viktor Babariko, a charismatic bank manager and unexpected future presidential candidate.

She was later invited to manage Babariko’s presidential challenge – one that shocked Belarus, put the autocrat on notice, and landed the candidate and his son Edward in jail, where they remain to this day.

Kolesnikova says it was the “visionary” Babariko who first proposed promoting the idea of self-respect. Up until that point, she says, the opposition had been focused on “loathing Lukashenko.” Babariko wanted Belarusians to believe they had a right to determine their future. “Everyone thought he was crazy at the time.”

The Babariko campaign’s catchphrase – “we’re extraordinary” – is one of several slogans chanted by the crowds in Zhlobin, and would have been imaginable just a few weeks ago. “You know something has clicked when factory workers come out and tell you that they are extraordinary,” Kolesnikova says.

A skilful orator and charismatic presence in her own right, the political activist has already made several key contributions to Belarusian history. She was the driving force in joining three presidential campaigns behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a stay-at-home mother only running because Lukashenko had jailed her husband.

Kolesnikova reveals Tikhanovskaya was initially very wary of standing alone against an autocrat of well known cruelty. But she was brought around in just 15 minutes: “We all had our doubts and represented very different electorates, but we all wanted to show that we could compromise.”

Together with Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of another jailed candidate, Tikhanovskaya and Kolesnikova ran a brilliantly simple campaign. They rejected personal political ambition and made a promise to hold fresh, democratic elections. Belarusians took to it in their numbers and almost certainly voted overwhelmingly for Tikhanovskaya to be their president.

But after a disgraceful election, and the exits of Tsepkalo to Russia and then Tikhanovskaya to Lithuania under threats of violence, Kolesnikova was left alone in Belarus.

She says she never thought about joining them despite the threats and obvious risks.

“I was very worried when we found out Svetlana was leaving because having her here gave us a different sense of legitimacy,” she says. “But I’m here till the end, though I realise we’re now playing a long game.”

Two weeks after hijacking the election, Lukashenko may have lost legitimacy, but his control of the state is largely unchanged. He can still press a button to summon ministers. He still controls the budget. He can still put the army on battle alert, as he did on Saturday.

He also still appears to enjoy the full loyalty of his security services – though it is unclear to what extent that loyalty could depend on the moves of neighbours next door in Russia.

On Thursday, Kolesnikova announced a new plan to persuade elements of Lukashenko’s security apparatus to defect to the people. Most of the plan consists of financial guarantees – officers have to pay to break their contract. She insists that the conversations she has had since have been encouraging.

“People are very scared, but there are many who say they support us,” she claims. Most of the potential defectors are mid-level bureaucrats, or in the police, but there are “honourable people” inside the KGB, Belarus’s feared security agency, too. “They say they detest him but are frightened to lose their living or worse.”

Lukashenko calls on supporters to defend Belarus

Vladimir Putin’s plans for Belarus are unknowable at this stage, and only likely to become clear in the forthcoming weeks. In 2018, the Russian president reluctantly agreed to a transition in Armenia after the army and security services switched sides. But it is unlikely he will readily embrace the idea of a dictator in Belarus being toppled by the power of the street.

Kolesnikova insists Putin need not be concerned by any new, democratic leadership. There would be no change in the general course of foreign relations, she insists. Any relationship would be built on the kind of hard-headed pragmatism the Russian leader thrives on.

“Only pragmatism, zero nationalism,” she says. “We are interested in building truly partner relations. Unlike Lukashenko, we won’t lie five times a day.”

Kolesnikova says she has “no illusions” about the belligerent outlook of Russia’s strongman and his nose for geopolitical opportunities. But she “could not fathom” the prospect of military intervention in Belarus that some have predicted.

“The majority of Belarusians don’t support Lukashenko,” she says. “You tell me Russians want to fight with the majority of the Belarusian people? I don’t see how that works.”

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