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The long reach of Belarus’s repression

Why an Olympic athlete’s complaint became an act of protest.

Belarusian Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya poses with a T-shirt reading “I just want to run” during a press conference on August 5, 2021, in Warsaw, Poland.
Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

Belarusian Olympic hopeful Krystsina Tsimanouskaya just wanted to run her race, the 200-meter sprint, in the Tokyo Games. But when she found out that she’d been added to the registration to run the 4x400 relay, a race she hadn’t trained for, the 24-year-old took to Instagram to vent her frustration with her coaches and at her country’s Olympic committee.

That was enough to turn her into a dissident — because in Belarus, run by the authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for 27 years, even a tiny act of resistance can be a challenge to the state.

Her coaches informed her that she’d been ordered by government officials to return back home immediately. When she balked, they warned her, “If you stay here against [their] will, understand that it will lead to nothing good,” and, “that’s how suicide cases end up, unfortunately.”

At the airport, Tsimanouskaya refused to get on the plane and instead used a translation app on her phone to tell a Japanese police officer she needed help, fearing she would be sent to jail if she returned to Belarus. Tsimanouskaya eventually took refuge in the Polish embassy, and this week, she flew to Poland, which granted her and her husband humanitarian protections.

The saga was a startling reminder of how far Lukashenko’s repression now reaches.

“Because Lukashenko feels threatened from so many angles, from so many sides, he sees treason in every criticism,” said Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Lukashenko is conducting a sweeping human rights crackdown after massive protests last year challenged his decades-long hold on power. The regime is targeting journalists, activists, dissidents, even other athletes. Ahead of the anniversary of the protests, he is acting so “there would be basically no structures left among those that dared to criticize him or report properly,” said Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach, a Belarusian journalist and team lead for Europe and Central Asia at Free Press Unlimited.

Experts and journalists say the escalating crackdown is unprecedented, even for the strongman. That threat has prompted some Belarusians to flee elsewhere to escape the clampdown. And in some instances, Lukashenko has responded by extending the government’s crackdown across its borders.

“Nobody who’s active — an activist politician, journalist, blogger — can feel safe,” Liubakova said. “Not inside the country nor outside the country.”

Lukashenko is a longtime dictator. His latest purge is still unprecedented.

Lukashenko is Europe’s longest-serving leader, in power since 1994 after winning a democratic election in the post-Soviet state. Throughout his time in power, he’s rigged elections and stifled dissent to maintain control.

This was largely his plan last August, during the country’s most recent presidential election. But it was derailed by a political novice named Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Tikhanovskaya’s husband is an activist who wanted to challenge Lukashenko in the presidential race; when he was disqualified and jailed by the regime, Tikhanovskaya, who had no political experience whatsoever, took his place as a candidate. To the surprise of many, she rallied millions of Belarusians in opposition to Lukashenko.

She didn’t win, because that’s not a thing that happens under Lukashenko. But she managed to harness the discontent around Lukashenko’s leadership, fueled by anger about the economy and the coronavirus pandemic. That led to massive and historic protests against the regime.

Lukashenko doubled down, as authoritarians tend to do, with even more repression and brutality. “This has been an autocratic, repressive country for many, many years,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said. “But what’s happened in the past year is just off the charts. It’s not more of the same — it’s so widespread and broad-scale.”

Lukashenko has referred to it as a “mopping-up operation,” with opposition figures, civil society groups, dissidents, and journalists all swept up in an unrelenting dragnet. “There are repressions going on hourly, hourly, repeatedly, full-scale,” Tatyana Margolin, regional director for the Eurasia program with Open Society Foundations, said. “And it’s because these are the final, desperate gasps of a despot who knows the end is near.”

The regime has recently targeted civil society organizations, shutting down more than 50 groups. In July, Belarusian authorities raided the headquarters of the Viasna Human Rights Center, one of the country’s top independent human rights organizations. The organization has been documenting cases of political repression and torture, especially since August 2020. They detained seven people, including Viasna’s leaders, and accused them of tax evasion and “organizing and financing group actions that grossly violate public order.”

Natallia Satsunkevich, who works for Viasna (which means “spring” in Belarusian), fled the country in January; some of her colleagues have also fled in recent months. “It was very dangerous, and I wanted to continue my work, and that was the only possibility,” she told me.

Also in July, police conducted about 70 raids on media outlets and journalists’ homes, which led to 15 arrests, according to a report from Reporters Without Borders. Since last year, journalists have been subject to about 500 arrests or detentions in the country.

The most egregious case happened in May, when Belarusian fighter jets diverted a Ryanair plane that was flying over Belarus en route to Lithuania from Greece and forced it to land in Minsk. Officials claimed (with laughably flimsy evidence) they had received a credible bomb threat against the plane. It was merely a pretext to arrest a prominent Belarusian opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend, who were aboard the flight (along with 170 other passengers).

The diversion of the Ryanair plane to detain Protasevich violated international norms and prompted global condemnation and punishment, including from the US and EU. But Lukashenko took the risk because he sees Protasevich — and other journalists and dissidents — as even more of a risk to his political fortunes.

“It’s an absolute existential determination to stay in power at all costs,” Denber said. “I think the degree of this crackdown only reflects the degree that he feels threatened.”

And that desperation means Lukashenko sees enemies everywhere, not just in Belarus.

Lukashenko’s transnational repression is a troubling example of global authoritarianism

The Ryanair incident exists on a scale far above what happened to the Olympian, Tsimanouskaya, and the efforts to wrangle her home after she spoke out against her coaches. But it represented, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week, “another act of transnational repression.”

Transnational repression — an authoritarian campaign against dissent that is essentially borderless — is a consequence of our more globalized world. Dissidents can more easily cross borders, but so too can the powers and abuses of the state. Technology, of course, facilitates this, both in how activists communicate abroad and the tools authoritarians can use to surveil or intimidate those they perceive as threats outside a country.

“It’s very difficult for [exiles] to disappear or become invisible to the regime because of that technology,” said Nate Schenkkan, director of research strategy at Freedom House.

Authoritarians use tools of digital repression, like online harassment or spyware, something Iran has reportedly done. They can threaten families at home — and make those threats publicly known. They can manipulate legal structure, like the use of Interpol red notices, a tactic that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used. Or they can engage in illegal renditions and kidnapping, assassination, murder.

The Saudi murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul remains perhaps the most chilling example of what this kind of transnational repression can look like.

In lots of ways, transnational repression is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A leader like Lukashenko faces massive popular resistance at home, which he sees as a threat to his rule. He cracks down. People flee. Those people continue to speak out. The threat, in a leader desperate to hold power, amplifies.

Some experts and journalists told me that while Lukashenko fits this mold, his ambitions and audacity may be a tad greater than his actual powers. The Ryanair incident, as astonishing as it was, did happen over Belarusian airspace He isn’t Putin, allegedly ordering the poisoning of ex-spies on a London bench. “Your Belarus KGB is not the same as the [Russian] FSB. The resources are not parallel,” Margolin, of Open Society, said.

“But,” she added, “I think he’s definitely trying to send a message that you’re not safe anymore.” This is especially true in the countries closer to Belarus, particularly in Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland, where many exiles have fled and which have significant Belarusian expat communities.

Recently, 26-year-old Belarusian dissident Vitaly Shishov, who ran an opposition organization from Ukraine, was found hanged in a Ukrainian park after going missing after a run. His supporters have blamed Lukashenko for staging his suicide, and though there’s no evidence yet on the actual cause of death or whether the regime is involved. Still, it speaks to the very palpable fears within the Belarusian community. The mysterious death compounds what observers do know: that Lukashenko will divert a plane, will threaten an Olympian, will jail hundreds of people.

“The regime is, at this point, just really dead set on crossing every red line that exists and really trying the Western world with its actions,” Margolin said.

Belarusian journalists and activists feel it, too. I asked Satsunkevich if she felt safe doing her human rights work abroad. “It’s an interesting question because we see the arrest of Roman Protasevich, and this death of Vitaly Shishov in Ukraine, and nobody knows what it really was,” Satsunkevich said.

She and her colleagues have certain protocols they follow, just in case, to help protect themselves. “I feel safe,” she said, “but I try to be attentive and not to forget the danger.”

Liubakova, the journalist, is no longer in Belarus, but she said she knows that her work is always risky. There are threats on social media. There is fear of possible surveillance. “You kind of always keep in mind that somebody might be watching you, somebody might be observing you,” she said. “This is not paranoid. This is not about paranoia. Myself and my friends are being vigilant, understanding that everything is possible at any moment.”