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Five Belarusian Opposition Figures: Where They Are, What Fates They Face

Using gestures that would later become iconic opposition symbols, Svatlana Tsikhanouskaya clenches her fist, Maryya Kalesnikava makes a heart sign, and Veranika Tsapkala signals V for victory while campaigning ahead of Belarus's disputed presidential election in 2020.
Using gestures that would later become iconic opposition symbols, Svatlana Tsikhanouskaya clenches her fist, Maryya Kalesnikava makes a heart sign, and Veranika Tsapkala signals V for victory while campaigning ahead of Belarus's disputed presidential election in 2020.

Tens of thousands of people in Belarus have been swept up in the crackdown launched by Alyaksandr Lukashenka after he was declared winner of a presidential election last August that much of Belarus rejected as rigged. His main challenger, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said she was forced to leave Belarus for Lithuania a day after the August 9 poll amid threats to herself and her family. She is not the only leading Belarusian opposition figure to have faced threats, jail time, or other pressure from Lukashenka and the state.

One of her closest associates, Maryya Kalesnikava, could face 12 years in prison, according to formal charges that came to light on May 13 and were swiftly denounced by the U.S. State Department as "an outrage." Kalesnikava is not the only Belarusian opposition figure to be hounded by Lukashenka. RFE/RL looks at the fate of her and four others who were at the forefront of last year's nascent pro-democracy movement in Belarus.

Maryya Kalesnikava

Maryya Kalesnikava
Maryya Kalesnikava

Kalesnikava headed the presidential campaign of Viktar Babaryka, former chairman of the Russian-owned Belgazprombank, until it was derailed by his June 2020 arrest on embezzlement charges, which he and his supporters contend were fabricated to keep him off the ballot.

Kalesnikava, 38, then teamed up with Tsikhanouskaya and after the disputed election became a senior member of the opposition's Coordination Council.

Kalesnikava was arrested on September 7 in the center of Minsk by masked men and taken to the Ukrainian border the next day along with two associates. Ordered to cross the border, Kalesnikava refused, tearing up her passport instead. She was then taken back to Minsk and jailed.

Kalesnikava was first charged with calling for action aimed at damaging the state. Her associates told RFE/RL on May 13 that, according to official documents, she is now charged with conspiracy to seize power by unconstitutional means, public calls for action against national security, and creating and leading an extremist group. If found guilty, Kalesnikava faces up to 12 years in prison.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called the formal charges "manufactured" and "an outrage." Kalesnikava is a 2021 recipient of the State Department's International Women of Courage award. She and supporters reject all charges as politically motivated.

Viktar Babaryka

Viktar Babaryka
Viktar Babaryka

For 20 years, Babaryka was chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, an almost entirely Russian-owned commercial bank in Belarus. He stepped down to seek the presidency and was seen as a strong challenger.

Babaryka, 57, lashed out at Lukashenka during the campaign, accusing him of covering up the full scope of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belarus. Lukashenka had refused to institute lockdown measures, dismissing the coronavirus as "mass psychosis."

On June 15, Belarusian authorities seized control of Belgazprombank, and on June 18 they arrested Babaryka, accusing him of masterminding the illegal transfer of millions of dollars to accounts in Latvia. His son Eduard was also taken in by police.

Dzmitry Layeuski, a lawyer for Babaryka, said on January 28 that the country's Supreme Court would hear the case, dashing any hope of filing an appeal. Babaryka and six co-defendants went on trial on February 17.

Babaryka could be sentenced to 15 years in prison if convicted. He and his son are being held in a KGB jail, according to the human rights group Vyasna.

Valer Tsapkala

Valer Tsapkala
Valer Tsapkala

Like Babaryka, Valer Tsapkala is a successful businessman who sought to challenge Lukashenka but was barred from the presidential race. Tsapkala co-founded a high-tech incubator in Minsk and has political and diplomatic experience as well, having headed Lukashenka's first presidential campaign, in 1994, and later served as ambassador to the United States.

In the early days of the 2020 campaign, Tsapkala, 56, lambasted Lukashenka's government over "low living standards, mass migration, and low salaries," as well as corruption and a lack of political freedoms.

On June 29, the Interior Ministry announced a probe into "illegal activities" allegedly involving Tsapkala. A day later, electoral officials barred him from the presidential race on the grounds that his campaign had submitted forged signatures to get on the ballot, charges it rejected.

Reportedly fearing arrest, Tsapkala fled Belarus with his children sometime in late July and first headed to Russia. He later traveled on to Ukraine and Poland before staying put in Latvia.

Belarusian state TV reported on February 8 that Minsk was seeking his extradition, saying Tsapkala would face corruption and bribery charges. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said that no such request had been received and that if one is delivered, it will be rejected.

Veranika Tsapkala

Veranika Tsapkala
Veranika Tsapkala

Veranika Tsapkala headed her husband's presidential campaign at first, but after that bid was rejected she moved over to the Tsikhanouskaya team, joining Kalesnikava as a top aide. The trio were a hit on the campaign trail, drawing campaign crowds that grew in size as the August 9 election approached.

Tsikhanouskaya clenching her fist, Kalesnikava making a heart sign, and Tsapkala signaling a V for victory quickly became iconic symbols of the election.

Tsapkala stayed on in Belarus to help the campaign even after her husband and children had fled Belarus. That didn't mean she or her family were safe. Natallya Leanyuk, a sister of Veranika Tsapkala, said on July 30 that she was briefly detained for questioning after she had disappeared, raising fears she had been kidnapped.

After the August 9 vote, Tsapkala ultimately did leave, fleeing Belarus for Poland, where she reunited with her husband and family. On August 19, she told Reuters she would not return to Belarus any time soon as she feared she would be arrested. "I wish I could go back to Belarus as soon as possible but at the same time I understand the chances of me getting to the jail are very, very high," she said.

Syarhey Tsikhanouski

Syarhey Tsikhanouski
Syarhey Tsikhanouski

Like Babaryka and Tsapkala, Syarhey Tsikhanouski was viewed as a credible challenger to Lukashenka ahead of the presidential election. Unlike the other two, however, Tsikhanouski, 42, was not a businessman or a former diplomat but a blunt, burly vlogger.

He used his YouTube channel, A Country For Life, to expose graft and other wrongdoing in Belarus, racking up tens of thousands of followers in the process. His campaign rallies drew thousands, many clenching bedtime slippers to symbolically crush the "cockroach," the epithet Tsikhanouski had tarred Lukashenka with.

His presidential bid was rejected by electoral officials on May 15. Five days later, he announced from his hometown of Homel that his wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, would be stepping in to take his place. He headed out to campaign for her but on May 29 was arrested for a third and last time that month, in Hrodna. He was charged that day with violating public order, although video footage from the rally that day showed no signs of any unrest.

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In March 2021, the Belarusian Investigative Committee announced that the formal probe into Tsikhanouski, opposition politician Mikalay Statkevich, who ran for president in 2010 and was imprisoned afterwards, and their associates had been completed.

Tsikhanouski is accused of organizing mass disorder, incitement of social hatred, impeding the Central Election Commission's activities, and organizing activities that disrupt social order. He could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty. He and supporters vehemently deny the charges as politically motivated.

At the end of April, Tsikhanouski associate Alyaksandr Aranovich was sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty of plotting mass disorder and organizing activities that violate public order. "The case is fabricated. No evidence was presented. I was not allowed to defend myself. Everything is being done to put me behind bars," Aranovich said at the end of the trial.

The trials of Tsikhanouski and the others targeted in the case are pending, and they remain jailed.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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