Belarus goes after its exiles
The authoritarianism of Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko is increasingly crossing borders. Many have fled into exile since Lukashenko deployed the army to brutally crush the mass protests that followed his blatant election theft in August 2020. The latest to head into exile is Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya; all it took to make her a target was criticism of sporting officials. But even in exile people are not safe, as the hijacking of a plane to force an exiled activist back to Belarus showed in May. The suspicious death of another exile in Ukraine in August fuelled fears that Belarusian intelligence services are increasingly active abroad. In response, the European Union and United Nations need to toughen sanctions against this dangerous destabilising force.
All Krystsina Tsimanouskaya wanted to do was run her race. Like the 10,000-plus other competitors in the Tokyo Olympics, she wanted to know she’d done her best when she returned home. But that was not to be. When officials from her country, Belarus, entered her into a race at a distance she had never run, she criticised them, as any athlete would have. That she did so publicly made her a target of Europe’s most odious regime, which relies heavily on sport as part of its propaganda.
Tsimanouskaya never got to go home. She now lives in exile in Poland. She had never expressed a political point of view, only criticising officials on a sporting issue. But the fact that this instantly made her a target reveals the extent of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko’s determination to stamp out any shred of criticism. In Belarus now anything that does not express approval of the state is assumed to be against it. Tsimanouskaya was immediately demonised in state media mouthpieces as a ‘traitor’ and slurred as suffering from mental illness – an accusation that echoed the political abuse of psychiatry often made by totalitarian regimes in the past.
Tsimanouskaya was far from alone. Because the Belarusian government seeks to use sporting prowess to improve its international image, it is particularly intolerant when sportspeople step out of line. Over 120 sportspeople have been jailed or faced reprisals after speaking out, including the loss of their funding or their place in competitions; Tsimanouskaya announced she would auction her European Games medal to raise money for such sportspeople targeted by the state.
It is easy for the Belarus Olympic Committee to take punitive actions, since it is headed by Lukashenko’s son. Little wonder that other athletes have said they would not return to Belarus either.
A subdued anniversary passes
As Tsimanouskaya started to adjust to her new life in Poland, joined by her husband, who was forced to make a quick exit via Ukraine, the first anniversary of the mass protests that greeted August 2020’s fraudulent election passed. The day was marked quietly in Belarus, where action to defend human rights must now take place in secret, and leaders of the movement for democracy have either fled or languish in jail as one of at least 600 political prisoners.
To further sap any potential for renewed protests on the anniversary of the stolen election, state attacks on civil society organisations intensified. July saw a series of raids on the offices of rights organisations and the homes of staff members, with many detained. The government forced over 50 organisations to close.
Those shut down included organisations that work on human rights, such as Lawtrend and Human Constant, whose work to provide legal help to people under attack from the government made them an obvious target. But in a further sign that the state is not prepared to accept any check on its power, even organisations that work in areas unrelated to the struggle for democracy – child rights, the rights of older people and people with disabilities – have been forced to close.
Even a graduation speech provoked the state’s ire: in July, law student Katsyaryna Vinnikava was detained after making a speech honouring former staff of her university, several of whom are in detention.
Danger even in exile
In the face of deep repression many activists have chosen exile over jail. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition candidate who threatened Lukashenko’s 27-year-grip on power until he rigged the election, continues to try to marshal opposition from neighbouring Lithuania.
But recent events have shown there is no safety in crossing borders. In May the Belarus government committed the unprecedented step of hijacking a flight carrying exiled blogger Roman Protasevich, sending a message to exiles that they are not safe even in the skies. As Protasevich’s plane flew through Belarus airspace on its way to Lithuania, the authorities concocted a bomb threat and scrambled a fighter jet to force his plane to land. He was arrested on landing.
Recent events have shown that there is no safety in crossing borders.
Belarusian citizens have since been exposed to a ghoulish spectacle, in which Protasevich, subjected to who knows what during detention, has been wheeled out to parrot pro-state lines. To avoid any kidnapping risk, Tsimanouskaya’s route to Poland was changed at the last minute.
Protasevich’s kidnapping was nothing other than state piracy, and it showed how Lukashenko is increasingly prepared to export his repression, going after exiles with little care for diplomatic niceties. On the same day that Poland granted Tsimanouskaya a humanitarian visa, Vitaly Shishov was found dead, hanging from a tree in a secluded section of a park in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Shishov had led Belarusian House in Ukraine, an organisation that helps exiles from Belarus. His face was bruised and his nose was broken. He had recently reported being followed. Ukrainian security services had warned that Belarusian agents were coming to Ukraine posing an exiles in an attempt to infiltrate the group; one of Shishov’s duties was to try to verify whether new arrivals were genuine.
The Ukrainian police opened a murder investigation. In response to what could well be a murder made to look as a suicide, other activists in exile started to post online messages stating that they had no intent of suicide as a defence against also being targeted.
If the death of Shishov seems straight out of a Cold War thriller, then a recent apparent tactic of the regime offers a further strange plot twist. There is growing evidence that Belarus is importing refugees from Iraq and Syria and encouraging them to cross the border into Lithuania and Poland. The aim seems to be to destabilise the countries as punishment for hosting prominent exiles. People from conflict-torn countries are being used as pawns in a new Cold War, rather than as people deserving of humanitarian compassion.
Pressure, but not from Russia
Lukashenko has faced some sanctions for his authoritarian actions, from the European Union (EU) and others, but predictably its powerful eastern neighbour, Russia, has not condemned any of its offences. Instead it has provided financial support. A US$1.5 billion loan package was arranged even as hundreds of thousands of people were protesting in September, and Russia agreed to release the second instalment of US$500 million mere days after the kidnapping of Protasevich. It can only suit Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose key foreign policy goal is to destabilise western states, to have another authoritarian state exporting violence against human rights activists to other East European countries.
The response of those in exile may be to become more secretive or to move even further away from Belarus, which would reduce the effectiveness of their efforts to keep up the campaign for democracy in Europe’s last dictatorship. The international community should not let this happen. Sanctions must increase and more pressure must come from the United Nations and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is currently helping to prop up the government by providing it with emergency support. Sanctions should include sporting sanctions, now it is clear that Belarus’s sportspeople are not free of authoritarian control.
Belarus’s many exiles are its future and they must be supported and safeguarded. Building democracy is a marathon rather than a sprint, and much support is needed to help Belarus’s runners complete the race.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The European Union and other states should intensify sanctions, not only against Lukashenko and his family but against a wide range of Belarus officials and companies.
The IMF should make its provision of Special Drawing Rights to Belarus conditional on respect for human rights.
Since Lukashenko is punishing sportspeople, sporting sanctions should also be introduced, preventing Belarus’s participation in international competitions.
Civil society and donors should support Belarus activists in exile, including to ensure their safety and security.