More details of the dramatic events on the Belarus-Ukraine border and the attempted expulsion of Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova emerged on September 8, as her two colleagues that escaped to Ukraine gave a press conference in Kyiv.
The story plays out like the screenplay of a modern spy story. Kolesnikova disappeared on the morning of September 7, snatched from the street by plainclothes masked men who bundled her into a van in central Minsk, according to eyewitnesses accounts. She turned up 18 hours later on the Ukrainian border, where she ripped up her passport to avoid being forcibly expelled from Belarus.
Ivan Kravtsov, the executive secretary of the Belarusian opposition’s Coordination Council, and Anton Rodnenkov, the group’s press secretary, were also detained the same day.
The opposition activists’ colleagues became alarmed when they couldn't find the three and the Belarusian interior ministry denied they had been arrested. Kolesnikova's family filed a missing person’s report.
The three resurfaced on the Ukrainian border at 4am the following morning, and Kolesnikova is reportedly now in custody on the Belarusian side of the border.
Kravtsov and Rodnenkov gave a press conference in Kyiv on September 8, where they revealed more details of the story. They accused the Belarusian authorities of trying to use them to help expel Kolesnikova from the country.
Kravtsov and Rodnenkov say they were arrested in the courtyard outside Kolesnikova’s apartment building, where they met after she disappeared on the morning of September 7, reported Meduza. The two men were then brought to the Financial Investigation Department, where officers allegedly threatened a criminal case against Kravtsov unless he agreed to drive Kolesnikova out of the country in order to “de-escalate” the political situation in Belarus.
“We had a long conversation and towards the end they said Maria Kolesnikova would be taken across the border. I realised they were trying to get her abroad by force,” Kravtsov told reporters as cited by Meduza.
The two men were then driven to the Ukrainian border, where Kravtov’s BMW was waiting in the neutral territory between the Belarusian and Ukrainian border stations. The car contained their passports as well as travel documents and tickets that they suspect were photographed in the car to prove they were fleeing the country.
Kravtsov said there was a coronavirus (COVID-19) test kit, plane tickets and a medical insurance policy for him and Rodnenkov to visit Turkey and the same documents for Kolesnikova to travel to Vienna and then to Munich.
The two men were told to wait in the car when Kolesnikova arrived, and she was shoved into the car.
"She was pushed into the back seat (of the car); she yelled that she wasn't going anywhere," Rodnenkov told the news conference.
Her passport was also in the car, but she immediately ripped it up and threw it at the officers that had brought her to the border.
“The moment she was inside and saw her passport there, she immediately grabbed it and tore it into many small pieces. Then she grabbed these pieces and threw them out the window at the unidentified men surrounding the car,” Rodnenkov says.
When the officers realised that Kolesnikova would not be allowed to enter Ukraine without a valid passport they attempted to detain all three opposition activists again, but Kravtsov accelerated away from the officers before they could reach the car and made a dash for the Ukrainian border post. Kolesnikova jumped out of the car before it reached the Ukrainian border post, while the two men crossed the border into Ukraine.
"She climbed [out of the window], climbed from the car and she walked proudly to Belarusian territory," Kravtsov said, adding: "She's really a hero. You must understand that. She's very dedicated to what she's doing now."
"By kidnapping people in broad daylight, Lukashenko is showing his weakness and fear," former English teacher and nominal victor in Belarus’ presidential election Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said in a statement calling for Kolesnikova's release.
This version of events tallies with footage released by RT showing the BMW calmly arriving at the Belarusian side of the border, where the drivers are unidentifiable. RT reported that there are “confusing reports” of what happened at the Ukrainian border as part of its ongoing campaign to obfuscate the coverage of the Belarusian protests as much as possible.
The RT reports seems to contradict state-run BelTA's version of events, which reported the car raced towards the Ukrainian border post at high speed. BelTA also reported that Kolesnikova was “pushed” from the car, but now it appears she jumped while still in no-man’s land rather than cross into Ukraine. However, the testimony of Kravtsov and Rodnenkov would be consistent with either of the reports.
Asked why he and Kravtsov didn’t rip up their documents like Maria Kolesnikova, Rodnenkov told reporters in Kyiv that they simply lacked her resolve. “She decided on a powerful gesture. That’s why she’s one of the opposition’s leaders and I’m [just] the press secretary,” he said.
Neither Kravtsov nor Rodnenkov say they plan to request political asylum in Ukraine, reports Meduza.
Despite reportedly trying to forcibly expel the opposition activists, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko asks the Ukrainian government to extradite Kravtsov and Rodnenkov back to Belarus on September 9, Interfax news agency reports.
"We're asking Ukrainian border guards to return these two to our country; we'll be figuring out what happened," Lukashenko said.
He blamed the opposition leaders for violating the border crossing, saying they were "hiding" in Ukraine. Lukashenko assumed that Kravtsov and Rodnenkov who drove a car just "tossed" Kolesnikova out.
"The border is under boosted security, so we set a post there. Naturally, they were stopped. They hit the pedal to the floor, and they must have tossed her out of the car – well, while driving," Lukashenko said.