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3 Dec, 2020 12:23

A split in Belarus’ opposition? Kolesnikova hints at talks with embattled Lukashenko but Tikhanovskaya favors West’s intervention

A split in Belarus’ opposition? Kolesnikova hints at talks with embattled Lukashenko but Tikhanovskaya favors West’s intervention

A key figure in Belarus’ opposition movement has set out terms for talks with authorities to end unrest in the country, whereas her former protest partner is visiting Western capitals seeking foreign support. Is there a split?

Maria Kolesnikova, who has been imprisoned for her political activism since September, rose to prominence as a member of the all-female political campaign team that rallied against the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, over the summer. In an interview from behind bars with German magazine Der Spiegel, she said she saw potential in talks with the government about an eventual transition of power, provided the rights of protesters were respected.

However, she added that “while we are held hostage in prison, dialogue is meaningless. The Belarusian leadership must first of all satisfy our basic demands: release political prisoners and start investigating crimes committed against the people.”

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She argued that current proposals for the adoption of a new constitution in Belarus would not put an end to unrest in the country. “What the leadership is trying to initiate is not credible,” she said. “This is an attempt by the regime to fool people, to deceive them – an attempt to stay in power.”

President Lukashenko, who has governed Belarus since the country’s first democratic elections after the fall of the Soviet Union, announced in November that he would stand down once the new document was ratified. He told journalists that “with the new constitution, I will not work with you as President.” He has previously said that a transition of power before the new legislation was voted through would be a “disaster.”

Belarus has been paralyzed by protests in recent months, after Lukashenko claimed victory with over 80 per cent of the vote in August’s presidential election. Opposition groups and many international organizations claim that it was rigged in his favor, and thousands have since taken to the streets to call on him to stand down and commission a new poll.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 38-year old former English teacher, also claimed that she had won the popular vote, after touring the country and speaking at crowded opposition rallies. She fled to Lithuania after the election, fearing reprisals from authorities, while Kolesnikova, who had served as her campaign manager, refused to leave the country. it was even reported that she had torn up her passport to avoid an alleged attempt to deport her to Ukraine.

Kolesnikova had previously run campaigns for Viktor Babariko, a veteran opposition politician thought to be Moscow’s preferred candidate to eventually replace Lukashenko. However, he was banned from standing in the 2020 presidential elections, and has since been charged with corruption and bribe-taking by the country’s internal security force, the KGB.

Kolesnikova’s former candidate, Tikhanovskaya, has since embarked on a tour of EU nations, meeting with leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last month, after a meeting with the Dutch foreign minister, she announced that she would work to have the country’s riot police, OMON, listed as terrorists by the bloc.

Tikhanovskaya has continued to call for sanctions and interventions from outside the country and, on Monday, she will speak at an event organized by NATO’s Atlantic Council adjunct, where she is expected to call on world leaders to “stay focused” on the crisis in her country.

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