MOSCOW—Men in civilian clothes with masks covering their faces grabbed the woman inspiring a revolution in Belarus on Monday. They pushed Maria Kolesnikova into a minivan at about 10am local time (3am ET)—the opposition leader hasn’t been seen since.
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ brutal leader for the past 26 years, has been cracking down on protests and threatening to arrest members of the opposition Coordination Council for an alleged “attempt to seize power,” but this is not simply a case of heavy-handed policing. It was a classic abduction, a technique of repression favored by the likes of the KGB and its Russian successor the FSB for generations.
The Belarusian KGB has been known for making people “disappear” since the early years of Lukashenko’s rule; for more than a quarter of a century, he has chosen to repress his opponents. His willingness to abuse power is the main reason so many Belarusians want to see him forced out of office and put on trial.
Two other members of the 600-strong Coordination Council also went missing on Monday. Frantic opposition staff and their lawyers have been touring the prisons and police stations in a desperate search for their kidnapped colleagues.
“We still do not know where they keep Maria,” Kolesnikova’s aide Gleb German told The Daily Beast, six hours after his boss vanished. “The authorities are openly using methods of terror, which will only cause a bigger crisis in the country.”
Millions of Belarusians have come to recognize the tall, broad-shouldered figure of Kolesnikova since this summer’s rigged presidential election, which threatens to bring down the last dictatorship in Europe even though Lukashenko fixed the result.
Opposition leaders Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo united behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya forming a powerful triumvirate of women challenging Lukashenko.
The opposition say the people of Belarus chose to boot Lukashenko from power and elected Tikhanovskaya to replace him.
Tikhanovskaya and Tsepkalo fled the country in the aftermath of the disputed election. Kolesnikova stayed, and during a month of subsequent rallies, protesters have emulated her trademark heart sign and repeated her slogan: “Belarusians, you are amazing! There is nothing impossible for you.”
Kolesnikova, who is just 38 with short blond hair and a wide smile, has been continually greeted in the street by fellow citizens who simply wanted to congratulate her on her bravery.
One such well-wisher was the last person to see her on Monday before she was kidnapped outside the National Museum on Lenin Avenue in Central Minsk.
“I heard the sound of a phone dropping on the ground and the stomp of somebody’s feet, turned around and saw some men dressed in civilian clothes and face masks pushing Kolesnikova into a minibus,” a woman told Tut.By, an independent news agency. One of the abductors picked up Kolesnikova’s phone, she added.
The secret services in both Belarus and Russia have been practicing abductions for years. In some cases, people went missing for a few hours, in others for weeks or months. The chairman of the Memorial human rights center, Alexander Cherkasov, warned that there was an increasing sense of impunity in Belarus.
“Thousands of Russian citizens have gone missing since the first war in Chechnya in 1994-96; as a rule, the FSB abduct a person to interrogate unofficially, before registering the arrest. We are currently urging authorities to find a man in Ingushetia, the FSB abducted him a week ago,” Cherkasov told The Daily Beast. “From the moment of abduction to the moment of police registration, Kolesnikova has no status, police can torture her, threaten her to get any information or confession.”
Out of several hundred abduction cases documented in a seven-year period in the Northern Caucasus, the Russian courts punished only four law enforcement officers for acting unlawfully, Cherkasov said.
By Monday evening all of Belarus’ major law enforcement agencies, including police, the Investigative Committee and the KGB denied they had anything to do with Kolesnikova's disappearance.
For a journalist accustomed to working in the former Soviet Union, these tactics are all too familiar. I was abducted in the disputed Donbas region of Ukraine, where armed men in masks regularly kidnapped journalists. Some of the pro-Russian militia said they were former Ukrainian military or former officers of the secret services. They would put bags over their victims’ heads and deny them their basic rights all while holding them outside of the rule of law.
The Kremlin has signaled its support for keeping Lukashenko in power and the Kremlin’s propaganda arms are accusing the Belarusian opposition of an attempted coup. President Vladimir Putin has promised to send forces to Belarus if the protests “get out of control.”
Belarusians have reported seeing “little green men” in unidentified uniforms on the streets of their towns, but officially Putin says they have not intervened.
Sergey Markov, a Kremlin adviser, admitted to The Daily Beast that Russians had crossed the border to assist Lukashenko. “Russian advisors are already on the ground in Belarus; I don’t think Russian special services are there yet but they are trained, of course, to control the situation,” he said.
Markov, who is a member of the Russia-Belarus Union’s public chamber, said the Belarusian leader was acting within his rights. “Lukashenko is going to arrest and investigate all organizers of the state coup; most of them will end up abroad in Lithuania or Poland,” he said.
Life has changed very fast for Kolesnikova. A year ago, she lived in Germany, where she played flute and organized cultural events. She only entered politics a few months ago when the KGB arrested her close friend, Viktor Babariko, Lukashenko’s most serious opponent and a presidential candidate. She is now a revolutionary leader fighting to topple the dictator in her own right.
After the disputed election, Belarusians refused to accept another election rigged in Lukashenko’s favor. Women in white dresses stood in chains in Minsk’s squares in solidarity, actors and journalists quit working for the state, thousands of workers went on strike with red-and-white flags, the symbol of independence.
Kolesnikova invited both Russian and Belarusian authorities for a dialogue. She proposed re-running the election and other members of the Coordinating Council called for peaceful reforms and changes, it was hardly an armed power-grab.
“This is false to say that all of us, 600 members of the Coordinating Council were going to do something,” said one of the leaders Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. “A Belarusian nation is being born right in front of our eyes.”
Nicolai Khalezin, the director of the Belarusian Free Theater, has known Kolesnikova for many years. He told The Daily Beast he was upset that she had been out walking in the street without protection. He fears the worst. “Lukashenko is obviously going after every leading member of the Coordinating Council,” he said. “So I would not be surprised if Kolesnikova is in the KGB prison on Gorodskoi Val and that Lukashenko has ordered her to be investigated on charges of staging a coup.”