Activists and athletes show the human face of Belarusian repression

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Krystsina Tsimanouskaya and Vitaly Shishov have little in common except for their youth and Belarusian nationality.

Shishov is an activist who helped Belarusian refugees in neighboring Ukraine, while Tsimanouskaya largely avoided political controversy and pursued the goal of becoming an Olympic athlete.

This week, 26-year-old Shishov fled Belarus after massive protests following last year’s controversial presidential election. Was found hanged in Kiev park, The local police speculated that it might be a “murder disguised as suicide.”

A few days ago, the 24-year-old sprinter Zimanusskaya Refused to board the plane back to Minsk And claim Refuge in the Polish Embassy After she and her family appeared to be threatened by Belarusian state officials, she was in Tokyo. Before that, she refused to take part in a game that she hadn’t prepared for a short time.

The mysterious death of a political activist and a high-profile defection wishing to participate in the Olympics highlight President Alexander Lukashenko’s increasingly severe efforts to suppress dissent-even far beyond the borders of his country .

Protesters holding a photo of Belarusian activist Vitaly Shisov during a demonstration outside the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev © Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images via ZU

The exiled Belarusian told the Financial Times that the two cases sent a chilling message: No one is safe.

“Christina is not an active participant in the protests. She dreams of participating in the Olympics,” said Alexander Opekin of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, which supports athletes who are suffering in the hands of the regime.

“She was described as a traitor on the Belarusian propaganda channel, so she was scared. She understood that she was sent back to Minsk for dangerous purposes.”

Tsimanouskaya’s husband, Arseni Zhdanevich, who is also an athlete, fled Belarus this week for Kiev for fear that he would be used as a lever for his wife.

“The root of the problem is that anyone who expresses their views will suffer,” Zidanevich told the Financial Times, and he admitted that after Shisov’s death, he had been afraid to walk in the Ukrainian capital.

At a press conference in Warsaw on Thursday, Zimanusskaya revealed that it was her grandmother who warned her not to board a flight from Tokyo. “She said,’You can’t go back to Belarus.’ I understand that she didn’t say this lightly. I think someone in Belarus told her what is waiting for me if I come back.”

Lukashenko is a former collective farm owner. Since Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, he has ruled Belarus for most of the 30 years. Since his regime was shaken by last year’s protests, he All forms of dissent have been suppressed.

In May, the Belarusian armed forces forcibly shot down a civilian plane flying to Vilnius to detain the strongman, which aroused condemnation from the international community. Roman Protasevich, A young activist involved in coordinating opposition activities.

Since the crackdown, several Belarusian activists have died or disappeared, and Lukashenko’s security service, the Belarusian KGB, is notorious for threatening the families of protesters and opposition figures.This includes Svyatlana Zihanusskaya After her husband (the original candidate) went to prison, she opposed Lukashenko.

Belarusian presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was interviewed by the Financial Times this week, urging the West to strengthen sanctions against the Lukashenko regime © ANDY RAIN/EPA

Qihanusskaya met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday after meeting with US Secretary of State Anthony Brinken. Interview by the Financial Times This week urged the West to strengthen sanctions against the Lukashenko regime. Protesters and the international community believe that she won the presidential election before she fled abroad for fear of being arrested.

As the details of the sprinter Tsimanouskaya’s future plans continue to surface, the cause of Shishov’s death remains unclear.

The Belarusian House was the Kiev organization he led before his death and was co-founded by right-wing members of the Belarusian opposition, many of whom belittle the mainstream opposition’s commitment to peaceful protest. In the fierce conflict with Russia, some people fought side by side with the Ukrainian army.

Last month, the Ukrainian National Security Agency barred a founder of the organization from entering the country on the grounds that the organization “posed a threat to national security.”

At a vigil for Kishov in Kiev on Tuesday night, Belarusians mourning his death expressed their certainty that the Belarusian regime is guilty. “This is not the first person killed by the Lukashenko regime… The entire population is living in fear,” said Anna, who had just escaped from Minsk last week.

“Whether you are an athlete, a doctor, a pensioner or a student, the regime is putting pressure on everyone and everyone.”

Yuriy Chuchko, an exiled Belarusian from Kiev who knew Shisov, said the activist had participated in “verification” of newcomers to assess whether they were undercover members of the Belarusian KGB. “He found agents among us,” Chuchko said. “They punished him so that the fear would spread to us.”

Other activists urged caution and pointed out that Russian security services active in Ukraine may also be interested in disrupting Belarusian opposition activities there, thereby damaging Kiev’s reputation as a safe haven for Belarusian refugees.

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation into Kishov’s death, the fear expressed by Zimanusskaya’s family and fellow Ukrainians resonated among Belarusians across Europe, regardless of whether they were involved in the activities of dissidents.

“Since last year, our conversation has changed. Now, when someone says they plan to go home for a week or so, they will be asked: “Are you sure? “Do you absolutely need to go there?” “People are worried that they might not come back,” said Yegor, a Belarusian student living in Warsaw.

Palina Brodik, coordinator of the Kiev Free Belarus Center, said that this anxiety is not limited to the protesters, and even extends to Lukashenko and the regime. “It is this fear that binds the protesters, state officials and Lukashenko himself. We are all in the same cage.”

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