MOSCOW—This time last year, opposition activist Yuri Voskresensky was languishing in a KGB jail in Belarus for protesting against autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko. Now, he spends his time volunteering to collect the names of Belarusian inmates who have spoken out against Lukashenko’s brutal 26-year rule, earning him the title of “the rat” among Belarusian dissidents.
That sudden switching of sides appears to have taken place during the three months Voskresensky spent in jail between August and October last year for helping to organize an attempted coup. According to the state news agency Belta and Voskresensky himself, Lukashenko had visited prisoners during that time, including a meeting with Voskresensky, where he convinced him to cooperate with authorities. Since then, the former prisoner has been persuading opposition inmates to request pardon for their actions—he told Deutsche Welle that he sent letters to 650 arrested citizens proposing they appeal for pardon—and sending the names of those he’s convinced to the dictator.
Hundreds of Belarusian opposition supporters are still locked in Belarusian jails, including the leader Voskresensky once supported—Lukashenko’s key opponent, Victor Babariko, who is serving a 14-year-sentence. Meanwhile, Voskresensky walks free and works for the authorities, compiling lists of requests from political prisoners ready to admit their faults and ask Lukashenko for forgiveness.
Voskresensky says his critics are “unfair” to him. In an exclusive phone interview with The Daily Beast, the 44-year-old businessman admitted that he had “used the opportunity” last year and made a deal with the Belarusian leader known as “Europe’s last dictator.” The next day, on Oct. 11, he left jail. Lukashenko now refers to Voskresensky as his man “responsible for political prisoners.”
“There are more than 700 opposition activists still in jail,” Voskresensky told The Daily Beast in a phone interview from Poland, where he’s attending an international economic conference. “I am the only one who came up with a way to put an end to the unrest on the streets… I vouched with my head for every political prisoner.”
Voskresensky says he has passed Lukashenko a list of over 200 “repentant” prisoners so far. But the prison system is slow to release inmates, and nobody from the lists have been set free yet. “We’ll know how many of 200 will be set free on Sept. 17,” he said.
Some say that cracks are already emerging within the Belarusian opposition movement as critics continue to request pardon from the authoritarian leader. Still, others, like Babariko and his close ally Maria Kolesnikova, who was sentenced to 11 years on Monday, have vowed never to make any such deals with Lukashenko. Kolesnikova is now viewed as a symbol of the resistance, after she tore up her passport and refused to leave the country last year amid a brutal government crackdown.
“Voskresensky is a real traitor of the opposition,” Kolesnikova’s spokesman Gleb Germanchuk told The Daily Beast. “He’s occupied our team’s headquarters in Minsk, sits there making some lists for Lukashenko’s pardoning… Maria Kolesnikova does not admit her fault.”
In October, while still in prison, Voskresensky said he had met with Lukashenko and several other imprisoned key figures of the opposition. The conversation lasted for five hours. According to political analyst Vitaly Shklyarov, a former inmate who was present at the meeting, the intention of the visit was clear from the onset.
“We were all bargaining chips for Lukashenko in his political trade with the West. The U.S. State Department, Mike Pompeo, got me out of jail—I have neither admitted my fault nor asked for pardon,” Shklyarov told The Daily Beast. “The fact that so few from this alleged list of 200 have been released proves that Lukashenko is cruel.”
Despite the pressure, dissidents like Kolesnikova refuse to break. According to her sister Tatiana, the professional flautist has been spending her time singing opera and doing 300 sit-ups a day in her tiny prison cell, where she has been kept alone for months. “Masha spoiled Lukashenko’s special operation to deport her and stayed in the country,” her sister said. “She is Lukashenko’s biggest nightmare.”
Neither Belarus nor Russia has ever sentenced a woman political activist to so many years in jail. “By convicting Kolesnikova to 11 years, the dictator Lukashenko is giving everybody in Belarus a signal: No sanctions will stop him. Everybody will end up behind bars, unless they admit their fault,” Moscow-based human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, Voskresensky has gone so far as to justify Kolesnikova’s imprisonment. “She has been convicted by our state court. Look at Austria, they convicted a woman activist Monika Unger to 14 years for anti-state actions and Europe did not say anything in her support,” Voskresensky said, echoing a popular argument on Russia state television.
Belarusian exiled opposition activists across Europe have also expressed anger at Poland’s apparent embrace of Voskresenky. “Voskresenky is a KGB agent and Poland allows him to come here for the forum,” Natalya Radina, editor-in-chief of the pro-opposition news website Charter97, told The Daily Beast. “If you asked me, I would have arrested him in Poland.
Voskresensky, on the other hand, appears to have no remorse for his actions over the past year.
“Many of the opposition leaders who called people to protest have escaped abroad, and [I] have stayed to develop an ‘in-system’ opposition, like Russia’s parliamentary Liberal Democratic or Communist parties. This is the only way to put an end to the mess on the streets,” he told The Daily Beast.
According to exiled political analyst Shklyarov, Voskresensky’s “effort” to build in-system opposition “is nothing more than a farce.”