Opinion: The amazing bravery of three women in Belarus has a message for the US

That’s where an unlikely trio of women has led a mass pro-democracy uprising aiming at toppling Alexander Lukashenko, a Soviet-era leader who has held power for more than a quarter-century. The dictator is digging in his heels even as Belarusians in huge numbers fill the streets week after week demanding he allow them to freely choose their President.

The daily events in Belarus, a former Soviet Republic, are worthy of a Netflix drama, full of unexpected twists, spearheaded by heroic protagonists and driven by a righteous cause.

But it’s real life. The stakes could not be higher, and the lessons more poignant for the rest of the world — including for Americans, concerned about their own democracy.

Just this week, one of the protest leaders, Maria Kolesnikova, seemed to vanish. One witness told a local website that she had seen masked men push Kolesnikova into a minibus and drive away.
Kolesnikova was the last of the three opposition leaders who remained in the country after elections on Aug. 9, which Lukashenko claimed he had won in a landslide. The claim was roundly rejected at home and abroad. Poll workers reported being made to sign election result forms even before the vote took place, leaving the vote tally blank apparently to facilitate fraud.
Lukashenko’s main rival for the presidency was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former school teacher who emerged as a formidable candidate when her husband, the original opposition candidate, was arrested. She was joined in the effort by Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband, a former ambassador to the US, was barred from running by the regime.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya
The third in the trio, Kolesnikova, is a former musician who had joined the campaign of another opposition politician whose campaign was also blocked. She became campaign manager for Tikhanovskaya.

Photos of the three beaming women — Tikhanovskaya, Tsepkalo, and Kolesnikova — became a rallying symbol for a population chafing under dictatorship.

Tikhanovskaya said as President, her first act would be to call new, clean elections. Lukashenko became the first post-Soviet President in 1994, in the aftermath of a union with Russia that followed the collapse of the USSR. He never relinquished power. Though he is often called Europe’s last dictator, that moniker is becoming outdated as authoritarian leaders take power in the region.
After the most recent election, when officials announced results deemed by many to have been rigged, Belarusians took to the streets and police responded with violence. Tikhanovskaya was detained for hours, as were several campaign staffers. She had already sent her children into exile for safety. Then she, too, fled to neighboring Lithuania.

Police violence against pro-democracy protesters only served to further delegitimize Lukashenko and energize demonstrations, which have continued bringing to the streets a sea of Belarusians dressed in red and white week after week.

Lukashenko has tried to enlist support from the autocrat next door, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For years Putin has sought to create a federation joining the two countries, and he may yet intervene, but it’s something he wants to avoid. Putin despises democratic revolutions, for obvious self-protective reasons. But intervening to save such an unpopular, illegitimate leader could backfire.
Putin has his own pro-democracy movement to suppress in Russia. In recent weeks, the leader of the Russian opposition, Alexey Navalny, has been fighting for his life in a Berlin hospital after being poisoned. German doctors have identified a nerve agent used in what looks like an assassination attempt. It’s the same chemical used in an assassination attempt against Putin critics in England, which a UK investigation traced to the Russian Military Intelligence Directorate, the GRU.
Putin says he might help Lukashenko, if “the situation gets out of control.”
As for Kolesnikova, the situation has only grown more dramatic. After her disappearance, two colleagues also went missing.
On Tuesday, they surfaced in neighboring Ukraine with an amazing story. They said they had gone to check on Kolesnikova when they were met by men who bundled them into a bus and soon after they were taken to the Belarus-Ukraine border. There, they met Kolesnikova.

The three were pushed into a car where they found their passports. Authorities were presumably trying to deport Kolesnikova, an iconic figure in the democracy movement.

Suddenly, Kolesnikova grabbed her passport and ripped it apart, throwing the pieces out the window. Then she climbed out the window, refusing to be taken away from her country.

The other two sped away toward Ukraine, as Belarusian authorities chased after them. (CNN has not independently confirmed the details of their account.)
The foreign affairs minister of…

Read More: Opinion: The amazing bravery of three women in Belarus has a message for the US

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