Like every other person, I have a list of people I think about every day. Since we cannot think daily about all the people on the planet, no matter how altruistic we may be, we will always keep in our thoughts just a few people, our loved ones. Sometimes, however, people whom we don’t know personally, but whose stories provide food for thought, creep into our thoughts urging us to act like them or to act for them.
Every day I think of Maria Kalesnikava, an activist from Belarus, who was arrested in early September and has been held in detention to this day; she’s been detained for an indefinite period without any legal charges. I tell myself her story every day. I’ve seen many stories of courage in my life, and I think her story makes the top ten. I’m sure you know it, but I like to tell it again, despite the fact that it is so dramatic. It is an event that must be published in the history textbooks, as well as in the civic education textbooks, with the heading Courage.
After the rigged elections in Belarus in August 2020, Maria Kalesnikava was among the three leaders of the free election protests, along with Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronica Tsepkalo. Each of them was warned with arrest. Each continued protesting in their own way. Maria’s story is extraordinary. On Monday, September 7, the policemen abducted her in the street and Maria went missing for hours. Her relatives knew only that people in civilian clothes had snatched and forcibly loaded her into a minivan. Although, on the one hand, it was obvious that only the authorities could seize Maria, they denied the fact, which was frightening. Only the next day there came some information about her.
The men of the Lukashenko regime took Maria to the border with Ukraine to expel her from Belarus. It doesn’t seem like a severe punishment, does it? Probably many Belarusians, as well as many of us, Moldovan citizens would like to escape from regimes into another world? Maria, being expelled, escaped imprisonment in Belarus. A car brought Maria to the Belarusian border in the middle of the night; she was given her passport and pushed over the line towards the Ukrainian border. Basically, she could not stay in Belarus anymore and any vigilant person would not even want to stay. Maria, however, found a possibility to stay: she tore up her passport to pieces so that she would not be admitted by the Ukrainian side. And she was not admitted. The Belarusian torturers were defeated. They had to accept Maria Kalesnikava back in Belarus. Of course, she was punished for her courage – she was immediately imprisoned and has been in prison ever since, without a fair trial, with no respected rights in detention.
The other day, a similar story happened to the Russian opponent Alexei Navalny. He is a controversial figure for those who have suffered from Russian authorities’ abuses, including Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova because he never condemned the territory occupation, the stationing of the armies, and the wars on the territories of these states. But if we look at the forms of protest against the Kremlin abuser, Navalny’s family is a lesson on courage for his compatriots: after being poisoned with banned substances (a fact confirmed by several international laboratories), he was rescued and treated at a medical institution in Germany. Many Russian opponents have taken refuge in the E.U. or the U.S., escaping imprisonment and possible death. Navalny could have done the same, living his life anywhere in the world. He decided to return home to Russia. Of course, he was detained at the airport and sentenced to prison in a matter of days.
Will they poison him again? Will they detain him for as long as Putin lives? Either option is possible; Russia, however, will never be the same. The courageous lesson paid off, people began to protest more and more actively, regardless of the detention. Even those in detention know that they are no longer alone and feel that it is not the worst thing that may happen to them. Tens of millions of people without courage are worse than just a thousand people in detention.
Moldova saw such examples in 1992 when the Ilascu group in the Transnistrian region was imprisoned, but none of them gave up the fight for the truth. Ilie Ilașcu got free after nine years, concurrently fighting for his comrades’ release. It was a hard-fought battle and a lesson of courage.
Today we seem to lack great courage. Maybe it’s not the time for extreme bravery as we no longer fight wars, nor do we have dictators ruling for decades.
However, like many ex-Soviet states, we are in a constant war with corruption and a nomenclature infiltrated in the political class that compromise society’s efforts for transparency and democratization. We may not realize it, but the risks are imminent and obvious: a corrupt political class shattered virtually all state institutions, and it is not able to regenerate even with the external partners’ help and financial support. We have no parliament, no justice, no anti-corruption bodies, and no independent monitoring and control of law enforcement institutions.
We should better recap the lessons on courage before we have to tear our passports up and before populating the prisons. We should better reactivate courage now, in every institution, before new elections, new campaigns, and new political outrages. If everyone would denounce corruption, every day would be a lesson on courage, without torture and detention. If there were judges who denounced corruption in every court, if such acts of courage happened in the prosecutor’s offices, in the police sectors, at the customs, at the National Anti-corruption Center, in political parties and town halls, we still have chances. If we lack courage, we will be deprived of many more things, and, in the end, we will be deprived of everything. We stay on guard.