Monday, September 7, 2020

Warning: Belarusian Security Forces Likely Kidnap Opposition Leader Kolesnikova

September 7 5:00pm EDT Belarus Update

By: Mason Clark 

Unidentified men abducted opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova and two of her staffers in Minsk on September 7. An unidentified group of masked men in civilian clothes abducted Kolesnikova and two of her staffers, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, using an unmarked van in downtown Minsk the morning of September 7.[1] The whereabouts of Kolesnikova and her staffers is currently unknown. Kolesnikova is a key member of the opposition Coordination Council and the last remaining Belarusian opposition leader active in-country.[2]

Lukashenko likely kidnapped Kolesnikova – rather than detaining her – to intimidate the opposition. Belarusian state media outlets are not reporting on Kolesnikova’s disappearance. The Belarusian Interior Ministry denied its involvement to international and Russian media and claimed to begin an investigation the evening of September 7.[3] Kremlin-run media outlets alternatively describe the incident as a “disappearance” or “kidnapping.”[4] Opposition leader Svetlana Tikanouskaya accused Belarusian authorities of kidnapping Kolesnikova to disrupt opposition planning.[5] ISW cannot independently verify the identity of Kolesnikova’s assailants. However, the unmarked men were likely Belarusian Interior Ministry personnel. Belarusian Interior Ministry personnel without insignia beat and detained protesters on September 6, and Belarusian police have previously formally detained opposition leaders.[6] Lukashenko’s likely decision to abduct Kolesnikova rather than formally detaining her, which would have equally disrupted her ability to coordinate the opposition, is likely an intimidation tactic against the opposition among other things. Opposition figures recently began publicly stating that they can expect to be arrested and held for a few days, suggesting that threats of arrest have lost their force.[7] Abduction and disappearance may re-introduce an element of terror-based deterrence that Lukashenko apparently seeks.

Lukashenko likely additionally targeted Kolesnikova to disrupt the Kremlin’s outreach to the opposition. Kolesnikova represents Viktor Babariko, a Russia-amenable presidential candidate detained by Lukashenko since June.[8] Kolesnikova has previously expressed a willingness to work with the Kremlin on a power transition in Belarus and has attempted to moderate protests. ISW has previously forecasted the Kremlin may attempt to dominate Belarus by supporting a transition leader – such as Babariko – it can control.[9] Lukashenko is scheduled to travel to Moscow for a meeting with Putin sometime this week. Lukashenko may have kidnapped Kolesnikova to send a message to Putin and disrupt Kremlin efforts to support an alternative to Lukashenko. Assuming Lukashenko was behind the abduction he might hope to regain some leverage with Putin through the threat of what he might compel Kolesnikova to say about Moscow’s role and plans in Belarus. Putin could decide to delay the announced meeting given this development, which might benefit Lukashenko by buying him more time to suppress the protests and delay Kremlin efforts to absorb Belarus. Such speculations must be tentative at this time given the paucity of available information. ISW will continue to update this assessment when and as more data become accessible.

[1] https://news.tut((.))by/economics/699502.html.


[3]; https://tass((.))ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/9390183; https://tass((.))ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/9393927.

[4] https://ria((.))ru/20200907/kolesnikova-1576896902.html; https://tass((.))ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/9391445.

[5] https://tass((.))ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/9389843.