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Questions Arise Over Whereabouts Of Belarusian Opposition Leader

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Authorities in Belarus are now giving their version of what they say happened to an opposition leader. Maria Kolesnikova vanished on Monday. And now the government asserts that she was detained trying to leave the country. She is among the supporters of a presidential candidate now in exile who alleges a stolen election. President Alexander Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote for himself. Journalist Charles Maynes is following this from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi, morning.

INSKEEP: What are the facts of the disappearance or detention, as best you can verify them?

MAYNES: Well, Maria Kolesnikova indeed seems to be in custody, just under different circumstances than we initially thought. Early this morning, authorities say she was detained while trying to cross the border into Ukraine by car with two other opposition members. In fact, we heard from one of those opposition members, Ivan Kravtsov, in a video he posted online.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

IVAN KRAVTSOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: And so here we hear Kravtsov saying that along with Kolesnikova, he decided to leave Belarus without elaborating. You know, I think you don't need to know Russian to hear just how kind of despondent he sounds, which his supporters take as a sign that the message was recorded under duress. Government officials insist the three tried to cross into Ukraine by car Miss Kolesnikova, quote, "found herself outside the vehicle." Officials here in Belarus suggest she was pushed by her own colleagues.

INSKEEP: Kolesnikova is under 40, if I'm not mistaken. She's been on video in front of big opposition rallies. Who is she exactly?

MAYNES: That's right, yeah. She is the - she was the campaign manager for one of the candidates banned from participating in last month's election, a guy by the name of Viktor Babariko. He's currently in jail. But Maria Kolesnikova really became a household name in Belarus as part of this dynamic trio of women who joined forces against President Alexander Lukashenko in the run-up to the election. You know, behind the lead candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who you mentioned in your lead, they attracted these huge crowds. This wasn't how it reflected in the official results. As you know, Lukashenko got 80%, which a lot of people find improbable. In fact, they think Tsikhanouskaya won, and they've taken to the streets of Belarus to demand Lukashenko's resignation ever since.

INSKEEP: Now, Tsikhanouskaya, the presidential candidate, the opposition candidate, is still free. She got out of the country. She is in exile in Lithuania. We reached her last week and heard her on this program. Let's listen to a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: OK. First of all, if you don't mind, wouldn't you please call us opposition? Because we are not opposition anymore. We are the majority.

INSKEEP: Is it a non-negotiable demand that Lukashenko must leave office?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I have to repeat, people don't trust him anymore. They don't want him anymore. And they will not have any opportunity for him to stay in power.

INSKEEP: So that is an uncompromising stance. But she is out of the country now. She got a chance to speak to the U.N. on Friday. Does she have much international support?

MAYNES: Well, she does to a degree. Countries continue to say that they support the opposition or what - she doesn't like that word, perhaps, but that's how it's often portrayed. The problem is with the exception of...

INSKEEP: The other side, let us say.

MAYNES: With the exception, though, of Poland and Baltic countries, Western nations are reluctant to antagonize Russia, leaving the opposition largely on their own. And this is another reason why Kolesnikova's arrest is important. She was one of the few opposition leaders actually still on the ground in Belarus. Most of the others are in prison or outside the country.

INSKEEP: And Russia is still supporting President Lukashenko.

MAYNES: That's right. In fact, we heard an ominous sign that Russian forces will train with Belarusian troops starting later this week.

INSKEEP: Charles, thanks for the update. Always appreciate it.

MAYNES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Reporter Charles Maynes is in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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