Marie de Minsk – Atlantic Council

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One could forgive to think that Maria Kalesnikava and Tatsiana Khomich are not sisters. Aside from the height of their voices and the same warm eyes, the two siblings are nothing alike and couldn’t be more different. However, since Maria’s imprisonment as part of a brutal government crackdown in Belarus, Tatsiana has found herself championing the cause of her sister and that of the more than nine million Belarusians living under a growing regime. dictatorial.

Kalesnikava is one of the leaders of the democratic movement in Belarus. She is currently serving an eleven-year prison sentence in Belarus on false charges. Maria is brash, daring, stubborn and outspoken. Tatsiana is anything but. When she speaks, you have to lean forward to hear her.

With her white blonde hair and ubiquitous fire red lipstick, Maria stood out last year after joining forces with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala in a grassroots movement that captured the hearts of Belarusians and almost ended the 26-year reign of dictator Alyaksandr. Lukashenka.

The three women were the replacements for the male candidates Lukashenka jailed ahead of the August 2020 presidential election in Belarus. The former boss of the collective farm believed Belarusians would never vote for a woman. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Maria represented presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, a banker and philanthropist with whom she had collaborated for years on art projects. Maria and Veranika supported Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who then likely won the presidential vote. However, no one knows the real result of the election because Lukashenka rigged the count.

The events that followed are well known: Lukashenka stepped up his repressive apparatus after hundreds of thousands of Belarusians crowded the streets across the country in an unprecedented wave of protests demanding a different future.

In the aftermath of the August 2020 vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania, while Veronika had already left the scene before the poll. Of the three opposition leaders, Maria alone remained and joined the great protest movement. The regime wanted to get rid of her and kidnapped her on September 7, 2020. They tried to deport her to Ukraine, but Maria resisted, tearing up her passport at the border.

“If she wants something, she will. She’s a little stubborn, ”Tatsiana laughs. “It was a message that no one can force you to leave the country or do something against your will. She has a strong sense of justice.

After showing distrust at the border, Maria was later arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison for conspiring to seize power, leading an extremist organization and threatening Belarus’ national security. The case looked like a Soviet-era lawsuit and was closed to the public. Maria has since filed an appeal with the Supreme Court to dismiss the case.

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The 39-year-old musician turned politician is currently being held alone in a holding cell and will be transferred to a women’s colony in Homel, where she will have to work. She has access to television and limited offers in the library, including the Russian version of Harvard business review. But she does not have access to her flute, nor even to a CD player. The Bach enthusiast also likes modern music.

She spends her 50 minutes outside running in the small prison yard, even though “she hates running,” says Maria’s sister, Tatsiana. In an interview with the BBC, Maria attributed her upbeat mood to the manic discipline she developed as a musician.

Tatsiana says that she and Maria come from an unusual family background by Belarusian standards. Hanging up a husband was not a priority. “We grew up in an environment of free discussion,” she says.

It was a democratic family and their mother always wanted her daughters to be independent. Two years ago their mother passed away and their father still lives in Minsk. Since his arrest he has seen Maria twice. Despite her incarceration, she remains positive and strong.

Maria has become a prodigious writer. She typically writes two letters a week to her sister and replies to thousands of people around the world. “She knows she’s not forgotten,” Tatsiana says. (Write to Maria here.)

On October 19, Tatsiana accepted the John S. McCain Freedom Award from the International Republican Institute in Washington. Tatsiana regularly travels across Europe to talk to parliamentarians and artists about her sister’s case. Claudia Roth, vice-president of the German Bundestag, has adopted Maria as her goddaughter, and Tatsiana is looking for an outspoken champion in Washington to do the same.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of Maria’s case is that she never intended to get drawn into the net of Belarusian politics.

A native of Minsk and a flautist, Maria divided her time between Germany and Belarus before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, going back and forth every two weeks.

In 2019, she landed a job as artistic director of a cultural center in Minsk called OK16, which was sponsored by Belgazprombank (before becoming a presidential candidate, Babaryka was previously CEO of the bank).

In her role as artistic director, Maria would bring in musicians from Germany, Poland and Lithuania. As the pandemic set in, life in Germany came to a complete halt, so she chose to stay in Minsk.

In May 2020, Belarusian presidential elections were called for August and Maria volunteered to join Babaryka’s team. After working with him on art projects, it became clear that they had a common vision and shared the same values. They decided that if anything happened to Viktor or his son, Maria would be the face of the movement. Viktor was arrested on June 18.

Tatsiana says that Maria’s thirteen years in Germany had a strong influence on her. She received her Masters in Stuttgart and cherished her freedom as an artist and as a human being. In an interview that Maria gave before her arrest in 2020, she told me: “No artist can realize himself in a system of non-freedom or censorship”.

“She lived in [Germany,] a country with human dignity. What could be more important? concludes Tatsiana.

Melinda Haring is the Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @melindaharing.

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The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation by promoting stability, democratic values ​​and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia to ballast.

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Image: Belarusian opposition activist Maria Kalesnikava appears for a sentencing hearing in the Minsk region court. (Ramil Nasibulin / BelTA / TASS via REUTERS)

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