Belarus musician emerges as a key opposition activist

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FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2020, file photo, Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus' opposition leaders, gestures on the way to the Belarusian Investigative Committee in Minsk, Belarus. Kolesnikova, a professional flute player with no political experience, emerged as a key opposition activist in Belarus. She has appeared at protests of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko after he was kept in power by an Aug. 9 election that his critics say was rigged. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

KYIV – A professional flute player with no political experience might seem to be an unlikely figure to take on the feared KGB state security agency in Belarus.

But Maria Kolesnikova did just that Tuesday, thwarting an attempt by the authorities to expel her to Ukraine with other opposition activists by defiantly ripping her own passport to shreds as KGB agents drove her to the border. She remained in Belarusian custody after the incident.

“I was happy to see that Masha has outfoxed their sly plans and come out the winner,” said fellow activist Maxim Znak, using an informal name for her.

The 38-year-old musician with close-cropped blond hair has emerged as a key opposition activist, appearing at political rallies and fearlessly walking up to lines of riot police and making her signature gesture — a heart formed by her hands.

Kolesnikova spent years playing flute in the nation's philharmonic orchestra after graduating from a conservatory in Minsk and studying Baroque music in Germany.

She later became the director of an art center that is now the Belarusian capital's top cultural venue. While working there, Kolesnikova met Viktor Babariko, the head of a Russian-owned bank who built his art collection and engaged in philanthropic activities.

When the presidential election campaign began in May, Babariko made a bid to challenge authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years. Kolesnikova headed Babariko's campaign.

Babariko was barred from the race after being jailed on money laundering and tax evasion charges that he dismissed as political. Another top potential contender, Valery Tsepkalo, fled the country fearing arrest. That left 37-year-old former English teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was running in place of her jailed husband Sergei, an opposition blogger, as the main candidate standing against Lukashenko.