Belarus musician emerges as a key opposition activist

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FILE – In this Aug. 27, 2020, file photo, Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus’ opposition leaders, gestures on the way to the Belarusian Investigative Committee in Minsk, Belarus. Kolesnikova, a professional flute player with no political experience, emerged as a key opposition activist in Belarus. She has appeared at protests of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko after he was kept in power by an Aug. 9 election that his critics say was rigged. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A professional flute player with no political experience might seem to be an unlikely figure to take on the feared KGB state security agency in Belarus.

But Maria Kolesnikova did just that Tuesday, thwarting an attempt by the authorities to expel her to Ukrainewith other opposition activists by defiantly ripping her own passport to shreds as KGB agents drove her to the border. She remained in Belarusian custody after the incident.

“I was happy to see that Masha has outfoxed their sly plans and come out the winner,” said fellow activist Maxim Znak, using an informal name for her.

The 38-year-old musician with close-cropped blond hair has emerged as a key opposition activist, appearing at political rallies and fearlessly walking up to lines of riot police and making her signature gesture — a heart formed by her hands.

Kolesnikova spent years playing flute in the nation’s philharmonic orchestra after graduating from a conservatory in Minsk and studying Baroque music in Germany.

She later became the director of an art center that is now the Belarusian capital’s top cultural venue. While working there, Kolesnikova met Viktor Babariko, the head of a Russian-owned bank who built his art collection and engaged in philanthropic activities.

When the presidential election campaign began in May, Babariko made a bid to challenge authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years. Kolesnikova headed Babariko’s campaign.

Babariko was barred from the race after being jailed on money laundering and tax evasion charges that he dismissed as political. Another top potential contender, Valery Tsepkalo, fled the country fearing arrest. That left 37-year-old former English teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was running in place of her jailed husband Sergei, an opposition blogger, as the main candidate standing against Lukashenko.

Kolesnikova and Tsepkalo’s wife, Veronika, then joined forces with Tsikhanouskaya, helping her run an energetic campaign that drew thousands to rallies. The three appeared together at colorful campaign events that were in stark contrast to Lukashenko’s Soviet-style gatherings.

Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign spokeswoman, Anna Krasulina, said it was Kolesnikova who invented a slogan that helped electrify the crowds: “I can change it all!”

When election officials declared Lukashenko the winner of the Aug. 9 election with 80% of the vote, the opposition accused the government of rigging the vote. Thousands took to the streets in protest, meeting a fierce police crackdown.

Thousands were detained and hundreds were injured by police who dispersed peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, stun grenades and beatings. The violent response drew international outrage and swelled the ranks of the protesters.

Tsikhanouskaya was forced to leave for Lithuania under pressure from officials a day after the vote, and Kolesnikova became one of the most recognizable faces of protest. Together with other opposition activists, she formed the Coordination Council to spearhead talks on a transition of power.

She appeared at daily rallies, braving threats from the authorities and making the trademark heart gesture in front of a phalanx of police in full riot gear — a positive message amid official pressure.

Kolesnikova voiced confidence that peaceful, nonviolent protests will prevail and eventually will persuade the government to agree to a dialogue.

“She has a remarkable combination of will, wits and real courage,” said Krasulina, the spokeswoman for Tsikhanouskaya. “Kolesnikova is one of the prominent Belarusian women who are now changing the course of the nation’s history before our eyes.”

Last week, Kolesnikova announced the creation of a new opposition party, Together, a move she said could help overcome the political crisis.

Along with other opposition activists, Kolesnikova was summoned for questioning as part of an official investigation against the Coordination Council. Authorities jailed some of its members and forced several others out of the country, threatening them with arrest.

But Kolesnikova has vowed not to leave Belarus despite the pressure. On Monday, activists reported she had disappeared, and Tuesday she and two other activists were driven to the border with Ukraine, where she managed to snatch her passport from the front seat of a car, tore it up and threw the pieces out of the car window.

The car’s doors were locked, but she escaped through the back hatch and walked from the no-man’s land between the borders back to Belarusian territory.

The two other activists, who crossed into Ukraine, admired her courage.

“Masha Kolesnikova is a real hero!” activist Ivan Kravtsov said in Kyiv. “After 12 hours of interrogation, she was full of energy and vigor.”

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Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.

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Follow all AP stories on the developments in Belarus at https://apnews.com/Belarus

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