Olympic sprinters and Ryanair planes: Belarus’s war on dissidents
For thousands of Belarusians living in exile, the message is chillingly clear: ‘no one is safe’
Vitaly Shishov left Belarus last year after joining protests against its autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenko. He settled in Kyiv, where he ran Belarusian House in Ukraine, a nonprofit group to support people fleeing his home country.
But after leaving his home to go for a jog last Monday, “he never came back”, said Kvitka Perehinets in the Kyiv Post. The next day, he was found hanged from a tree in a park. His face was bruised, his nose broken. And while there’s no definitive proof he was killed, his organisation is in no doubt about who was responsible. “This was a planned operation of the Belarus security forces to liquidate a person truly dangerous for the regime,” it said.
He was found just a day after Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was forced to take refuge in Poland’s embassy in Tokyo, saying she’d been taken to the airport against her will and was in fear of punishment after criticising her national coaches.
Shishov, who had recently complained of being followed, isn’t the first Belarusian opposition figure to be found hanged, said Kirill Krivosheev in Kommersant (Moscow): at least three others in the past 11 years have suffered the same fate. But he is the first to have been found in the territory of another state.
The alleged killing follows the arrest of activist Roman Protasevich following the forced landing of a Ryanair plane he was travelling on in Minsk in May, said Dmitry Solomchuk in Ukrayinska Pravda (Kyiv). It adds to the sense that Lukashenko, who quashed protests sparked by his disputed election win last year, will “stop at nothing to hold on to power”. Yet it could backfire, forcing the international community – not least Ukraine, which has close economic ties to Belarus – to cut diplomatic ties with Lukashenko’s regime and impose tougher sanctions.
As for Tsimanouskaya, her fear of retribution was wellfounded, said Jerzy Haszczynski in Rzeczpospolita (Warsaw). Several Belarusian athletes who supported the 2020 protests – including a champion kickboxer and a footballer – are in prison; others lost their jobs.
Tsimanouskaya is now in Poland, together with her husband. Many other Belarusians have fled to Lithuania, including opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who took on Lukashenko in last year’s poll (and held talks with Boris Johnson last week). These cases show that Lukashenko has no respect for borders in his quest to crush dissent, said Roman Olearchyk in the FT. For thousands of Belarusians living in exile, the message is chillingly clear: “No one is safe.”