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Nobel laureate author emerges as powerful voice backing Belarus protests

MINSK/KYIV (Reuters) - Wielding a bunch of flowers and surrounded by clapping supporters, Belarus’s most celebrated writer has lent a powerful voice to the opposition against President Alexander Lukashenko, even if she has so far balked at taking a leadership role.

FILE PHOTO: The 2015 Nobel literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich arrives for questioning by state investigative committee in Minsk, Belarus August 26, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, has mostly kept a low profile and spent years in exile under Lukashenko’s long rule. But she has become more outspoken since turmoil erupted following an Aug. 9 election.

After security forces beat protesters and arrested thousands to quell mass demonstrations and strikes, the 72-year-old Alexievich said she was tempted to enter the fray.

“If I were younger and not sick, then probably. Even now I will help with all my might, but in order to lead the movement, I no longer have physical and moral strength,” she told Radio Liberty on Aug. 12.

Nevertheless Alexievich agreed to support a Coordination Council created in opposition to Lukashenko after the election that he is accused of rigging to extend his 26-year rule.

Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and calls the council an illegal attempt to seize power. Two leading council members were jailed this week and on Wednesday, Alexievich was called as a witness to a criminal case against the body.

She seized the occasion to call on the world, especially Russia, to intervene to bring Lukashenko to the negotiating table and criticised police violence against protesters “when they turned people into meat”.

The flowers she brought with her had symbolic importance: protesters had formed human chains and carried flowers, sometimes placing them at the feet of security forces.

“Her participation in the council is certainly unusual. This is real politics, and she has always avoided politics,” said political analyst Valery Karbalevich.

‘THE SCALES ARE SWINGING’

“She has always been of the opinion that creative intelligentsia should not be on the barricades. But now that has changed. There is a revolution in the country, the scales are swinging, and even a small change in weight can tip the balance in one direction or another.”

Alexievich’s emergence into the opposition limelight comes with most of Lukashenko’s opponents in jail or exile, notably Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who took her jailed husband’s place in the election campaign but has since fled to Lithuania.

Opposition figures in exile include Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to Washington, and Andrei Sannikov who was imprisoned after trying to run against Lukashenko in 2010.

Nikolai Statkevich, jailed for five years after standing against Lukashenko in 2010, has been re-arrested.

Alexievich achieved renown with writings chronicling the harshness of life in the Soviet Union and its aftermath, through interviews with people who lived through tumultuous events.

Her documentary style of writing became popular in the 1980s but her humanistic, emotional tales of peoples’ fates entangled in major historic developments made her an uncomfortable voice for the authorities.

Publication of one of her best-known works, “War’s Unwomanly Face”, was censored as Soviet authorities regarded it as subversive and undermining the army’s World War Two victory.

Alexievich lived in exile in Italy, France, Germany and Sweden because of her criticism of the Belarusian government. Returning home in 2011, she tended to stay out of politics.

Protests were brewing even before the election amid frustration at Lukashenko’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which he called a “psychosis” that could be remedied by drinking vodka and driving tractors.

Alexievich compared the authorities’ behaviour to the secrecy and denial surrounding the Soviet government’s handling of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, an event that was the subject of one of her books.

When Viktor Babariko, a former banker who was considered the most powerful opposition candidate to stand against Lukashenko, was arrested in June, she acted as surety for him.

And when protests erupted, she openly called on Lukashenko to step aside.

“Leave before it’s too late, before you plunge the people into a terrible abyss, into the abyss of civil war! Go away! Nobody wants Maidan, nobody wants blood. Only you want power.”

Maidan refers to the street protests in Ukraine in 2014 that ousted a Russian-backed president and put the country on course towards closer links with the European Union.

Writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Sujata Rao and Mark Heinrich

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