Sister to imprisoned Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava, Tatsiana Khomich, speaks at the 14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On her incredible sister:
“On September 7, 2020, Belarus tried to forcibly exile my sister, Maria Kalesnikava – and they failed.”
“Once my sister’s made a decision about something there is nothing that will stop her. Even when it means forcing your way back into an authoritarian country. Even when it means putting your life or freedom at stake.”
“I remember the last time I saw her at the office. We hugged and cried and took a photo together. And then I went to Ukraine.”
On the Belarussian regime:
“[Lukashenko]’s often called “Europe’s Last Dictator” and like all dictators, he’ll do whatever it takes to stay in power.
“On the day of the election, Lukashenko declared himself the winner – even though it was abundantly clear that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya had won. Police attacked protesters with tear gas. They arrested people en masse.”
“No matter what Lukashenko does and no matter how long he’s in power, he will not break the spirit of the Belarussian people.”
“We’re already winning the fight against his dictatorship. And we will never give up.”
On how her sister is enduring imprisonment:
“Even in prison, even after months of being in solitary confinement, Maria had a huge smile on her face and in photos you can see her holding up her hands in a heart, even while she’s handcuffed.”
“For Maria, optimism is an expression of her freedom. It’s her decision to remain strong.”
On September 7, 2020, Belarus tried to forcibly exile my sister, Maria Kalesnikava – and they failed. They kidnapped her, drove her to the neutral zone just before the Ukrainian border, and after a struggle, they forced her into the backseat of a car. Maria asked the men inside where her passport was – they gestured in between the front seats. Immediately, she snatched up her passport and started tearing it up into pieces and throwing those pieces out the window. The Belarrusian guards tried to catch all the pieces and shove them back inside the car. But before the car crossed over the Ukrainian border, Maria climbed out of the window and walked back to Belarus on her own. If you’ve seen a photo of my sister before, you can understand what a sight it must’ve been – Maria has a short, bleach blonde pixie haircut and she always has a giant smile on her face, made even more obvious by bright pink lipstick.
And when people hear this story they ask me – were you surprised that she did that? And I always say – not at all! Once my sister’s made a decision about something there is nothing that will stop her. Even when it means forcing your way back into an authoritarian country. Even when it means putting your life or freedom at stake.
Maria & I grew up in Belarus with two independent free-thinking parents. I was the logical one. Maria was the creative one. She started playing the piano when she was 6, and the flute when she was 9. Eventually, she left Belarus for Germany to get a better musical education.
Maria is older than me. I was only 5 when the USSR fell – I don’t really remember it. All I remember is that Belarus was a country full of queues. You’d stand in line for hours at the market just trying to buy food. Money barely had any value.
Lukashenko was elected in 1994 – and as far as we know, that’s the ONLY time he was elected, even though he’s been in power for 28 years. He’s often called “Europe’s Last Dictator” and like all dictators, he’ll do whatever it takes to stay in power.
In May 2020, Lukashenko announced an upcoming presidential election. This was a huge surprise to everyone – by law, they have to announce it three months in advance, and of course they waited until the last minute. My sister was splitting her time between Germany & Belarus – in Belarus, she ran a series of public lectures on classical music. It was at this cultural hub, OK16 that she met Viktar Babaryka, a philanthropist and the head of one of Belarus’s largest banks, Belgazprombank.
When Viktar announced that he’d run in opposition to Lukashenko, Maria joined his campaign, and I joined soon after. I thought to myself, “I’m 35, in 5 years I’ll be 40, and Lukashenko will STILL be president!!” Now is the time to do something – even if it’s dangerous.
So we posted a Google Form online inviting people to sign up for Viktar’s team. On that first day, 100 people applied. Then, 10,000 people. The campaign was so exciting that I almost forgot about the danger. Everyone was so creative, so smart, and so clever. We went town-to-town gathering signatures to put Viktar on the ballot. In a country of 9 million people, we got 435,000 signatures.
We knew that as our campaign grew, so did the risk. Viktar spoke to our team in the office, and said, “If you’d like to leave, I completely understand.” But no one left. We just got right back to work because there was so much to do!
Then, on June 18, the worst happened: Viktar Babyrika & his son were arrested. Media outlets started reaching out & Maria was the first person on our team to respond. She’d never spoken on live TV before, and I could tell she was nervous. She went from being unknown to well known in a single day.
Thousands of people showed up in Minsk to protest Viktar’s arrest. We turned in all the signatures, but we still didn’t know if he’d be on the ballot. According to Belarusian law, you can run for president even if you’re in prison. We decided that no matter what, our team would try to convince as many people as possible to vote.
On July 14, they released a list of candidates. We weren’t surprised that Viktar wasn’t on it – but we were devastated nonetheless. But our team joined Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya & Veronika Tsepkalo in a unified opposition. Sviatlana’s campaign symbol was a fist, Veronika’s was a peace sign. My sister always used to do this heart symbol with her hands – it was a cute way for her to say that she loved us. And that ended up being the symbol of the campaign. The world was captivated by these three women, confidently standing together in opposition to Lukashenko.
And as we got closer to the election, we decided that some of our team members should leave the country in case Lukashenko arrested everyone. People across the country were looking to Maria for leadership. So she stayed, and I made the horrible decision to leave. I remember the last time I saw her at the office. We hugged and cried and took a photo together. And then I went to Ukraine.
On the day of the election, Lukashenko declared himself the winner – even though it was abundantly clear that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya had won. Police attacked protesters with tear gas. They arrested people in mass. And all that data we collected on our team & our supporters was used against them. They threw Viktar’s supporters in jail, abused them, and beat them. Sviatlana was forcibly exiled to Lithuania. They tried to force Maria into exile too, but when she ripped up her passport, they threw her in jail.
And that meant a LOT to people. The fact that Maria was willing to stay in the country, to fight with and for the people of Belarus, no matter what, inspired them.
She was charged with threatening national security, conspiracy to seize state power, and the creation of an extremist group & its leadership. She was sentenced to 5 years in prison in a closed trial.
Today, she’s at a Women’s Penal Colony with 40 other female political prisoners. She told her lawyers that she’s learning how to sew prison uniforms now and that she’s quite good at it. Even in prison, even after months of being in solitary confinement, Maria had a huge smile on her face and in photos you can see her holding up her hands in a heart, even while she’s handcuffed.
For Maria, optimism is an expression of her freedom. It’s her decision to remain strong.
The same is true for our country – no matter what Lukashenko does and no matter how long he’s in power, he will not break the spirit of the Belarussian people. We’re already winning the fight against his dictatorship. And we will never give up.