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Belarusian Government Keeps Increasing Crackdown On The Opposition

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Belarusian authorities say they have arrested an opposition leader on the country's border with Ukraine. But Maria Kolesnikova's supporters say the government was trying to forcibly deport her and silence another critic of President Alexander Lukashenko. Kolesnikova was reportedly first picked up on the streets of Minsk on Monday by plainclothes police. She's been helping lead massive protests in Belarus since last month, when President Lukashenko won a disputed reelection. He's been president of the country for more than a quarter-century. For more on this arrest and what it means for Lukashenko's control, we're joined now by Hanna Yahorava. She's director of United MassMedia, an association representing newspapers and news sites in Belarus.

Welcome.

HANNA YAHORAVA: Hello. It's a pleasure to be on here (ph) today.

CHANG: Well, it's a pleasure to have you. So there are two stories about what happened at the border. Do we know whether Kolesnikova was fleeing as the government says she is, or was the government just trying to remove her from the country?

YAHORAVA: As far as we know, Maria didn't want to leave the country at all, so she was forced to go to the border. But then on the border, she just tore her passport into small pieces, and she didn't. She refused to go to Ukraine. So as far as we know, Maria is still in Belarus. But nobody knows for sure where exactly.

CHANG: OK. Well, these protests have been going on for a month now. Lukashenko's government has rounded up thousands of demonstrators. And recently, it's tried targeting opposition leaders. How is that tactic working so far?

YAHORAVA: Every step of the brutal detention or any kind of violence toward citizens is making our protests bigger and wider. They still continuing to ask for the very simple things - to have new free and fair elections and to stop the brutality and violence on the Minsk and Belarusian streets and, of course, to release the prisoners. So people are not going to stop it right now, despite all the facts of authorities' actions.

CHANG: Well, as we've said, Lukashenko has managed to hold on to power for quite some time. For 26 years, he controls the media, the army, the economy, the secret police. Do people in Belarus genuinely believe that they can displace him with peaceful marches?

YAHORAVA: It's a very hard and a good question. People still want to keep protests peaceful. They don't see any other solution right now. They want to demonstrate that they're wide majority. So unfortunately, we don't have any other tools to change situation from inside.

CHANG: Do you feel like you are living in a democracy?

YAHORAVA: Unfortunately not - we are living not in democracy at all. It's like we are occupied by military forces. And all the craziness is going on every single day. When people from different professional occupations are just detained, arrested being at home, we don't feel any - anything safe here. So it's a lot of fear in society. But we understand that it's very difficult to stop. If we will stop, we will lose everything, and all the victims will be for nothing.

CHANG: Hanna Yahorava is director of United MassMedia in Minsk, Belarus.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today.

YAHORAVA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.