Belarus has been rocked by months of opposition protests after the rigged elections last August. More than 35,000 people have been detained during the crackdown on demonstrations.
A year on from the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus, and just weeks after President Lukashenko’s illegal hijack of the Ryanair plane to snatch the prominent dissident, Roman Protasevich, the tyrannical regime in Belarus is once again in the headlines. This time it’s for the botched attempt to seize Belarusian Olympic athlete, Krystina Tsimanovskaya, and also for the suspected murder in Ukraine of Belarusian activist, Vitaly Shyshov.
The sprinter was due to compete in the 200 metre heats on Monday, but was removed from the competition after criticizing her coaches on Instagram, saying that they had entered her into the 4x400m relay “behind her back”. Any criticism of the tyrant’s regime no matter how small is severely punished, especially in this case as the chairman of the Belarus Olympic Committee is none other than Lukashenko’s son. Belarusian officials supervising the team in Tokyo tried to bundle Krystina on a flight home, no doubt to be “re-educated”, but she resisted all attempts and has now been granted a humanitarian visa by Poland. In an interview with the Financial Times published on Tuesday, exiled Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said that what happened to Tsimanovskaya was part of a broader crackdown on dissent in Belarus. “Since August last year dozens of athletes have been jailed, fired and forced to flee the country”, she said. “No Belarusian can feel safe, neither in Belarus nor abroad”.
How prophetic. On the same day that Tikhanovskaya’s interview was published, Vitaly Shyshov was found dead in a park in Kiev, Ukraine. Vitaly headed the “Belarusian House in Ukraine”, an NGO which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution by Lukashenko’s regime. He had earlier told his friends on the social-media app, Telegram, that “you should keep your ears open, even while abroad, as the (Belarusian) regime is becoming more and more terroristic”. He disappeared on Monday after failing to return home from his daily run. Fellow BHU activist, Yuri Shchuchko, was part of the search party that found Shyshov’s body hanging from a tree, not far from his home. Yuri told reporters that Shyshov’s face showed signs of having been beaten—his nose was broken, and believed that Lukashenko’s security officials, known to be operating inside Ukraine, were responsible. “It’s the usual KGB scheme—Vitaly was beaten and hanged”, a visibly distressed Shchuchko said. The Ukrainian police have now launched a murder case and “will check all versions, including that of murder disguised as suicide”. In recent years, more than 150,000 Belarusians are believed to have crossed into Ukraine and all have been warned by the Ukrainian authorities that “people” from Belarusian special operations forces and other units are coming to Ukraine to liquidate them. This follows Lukashenko’s call for a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents”.
An increasingly desperate Lukashenko is clearly using the playbook of his neighbour, Vladimir Putin, who had spearheaded a law back in 2006 which formally permitted extrajudicial killings anywhere in the world of those whom Moscow accuses of extremism and terrorism. These terms are loosely defined by the Kremlin to fit anyone whom Putin wishes to eliminate. Sure enough, soon after the law was passed, many of Putin’s enemies were murdered at home and abroad. The murder of Shyshov is almost certainly Lukashenko’s warning to exiled Belarusians that wherever they are, they too are not safe from being executed by his agents.
At home, Belarus has been rocked by months of opposition protests after the rigged elections last August. More than 35,000 people have been detained during the crackdown on demonstrations, and many leading opposition leaders have been detained or forced into exile. Last Friday, eleven students and one teacher were sentenced to two and a half years in prison, just for taking part in peaceful demonstrations against the government.
Lukashenko is now expanding his crackdown to include the independent media, with more than 200 raids last month at the homes of those journalists who show any criticism of his rule. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the authorities are using an entire arsenal of repressive measures—intimidation, beatings, searches and arrests. Overall, 32 Belarusian journalists are currently in custody, either serving their sentences or awaiting trial. Last month, Lukashenko’s police raided the offices of Nasha Niva, the country’s oldest and highly respected independent newspaper, detaining the editor and its best known journalist, Andrei Surko. Surko, an insulin-dependent diabetic, is being held in a detention centre notorious for its harsh conditions, without a bed or mattress and lacking access to his diabetes medication. He is reported to have contracted coronavirus-induced pneumonia while in detention, which the authorities are refusing to treat.
Showing no sign of meeting any of the demands of the protestors, Lukashenko is retreating into the Soviet past, adopting many of the most oppressive tactics of the Stalinist police state. Despite a year of mass street protests Lukashenko refuses to concede any ground, instead referring to the demonstrations as a “rebellion” coordinated by foreigners. “We must stand up to them no matter what”, he told the All-Belarusian People’s assembly in February, a spiritual successor to the Soviet Congresses of the Communist Party of old.
With neither the regime nor the protestors able to achieve a decisive breakthrough, the situation in Belarus has deteriorated into a kind of stalemate, marked by ever-more innovative forms of protest and increasingly draconian security measures. Nowadays protestors are prevented from staging large-scale rallies in major towns and cities, so have shifted the focus towards localised events within individual residential districts and flashmob-style gatherings that allow the opposition to keep the flame of resistance burning.
But Lukashenko’s position remains far from secure. Economic sanctions by western governments have had a serious effect on the country’s economy and the internationally isolated tyrant has only survived by vital backing and financial assistance from the Kremlin, as his regime slides towards full-scale gangsterism. The country’s economy continues to rely on subsidised Russian oil and gas, with a $1.5 billion loan promised by Russia following the outbreak of protests also an important factor contributing to Lukashenko’s ability to cling to power.
However, there is increasing evidence that Moscow has concluded that Lukashenko has outlived his political usefulness and is seeking to engineer a transition in Minsk on its own terms. Putin is steadfast in his desire for a pro-Kremlin leader in Belarus, as a more democratic Belarus could inspire similar ambitions in Russia. The stakes are high and Russia may well intervene militarily if, after 27 years in power, Lukashenko refuses to step down in favour of a Kremlin-approved successor. Under the time-honoured guise of a “request for assistance from the legitimate government of Belarus”, Putin could opt to sanction a Russian “boots-on-the-ground” approach to affect change. Such a response would allay the Kremlin’s fears of democratisation and subsequent Westernisation in Belarus.
Lukashenko’s options are steadily diminishing and his days are almost certainly numbered. For Europe’s Last Dictator, the next few months will probably determine his fate.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.