Belarus is making the rest of Europe nervous

The plights of an activist in Ukraine and an athlete in Japan show why


KRYSTINA TIMANOVSKAYA is not your standard dissident. An Olympic sprinter representing Belarus in Tokyo, she had never publicly criticised the government nor its despotic president, Alexander Lukashenko. Her crime was to complain on social media that her coaches had registered her for the 4×400-metre relay without telling her. So they took her to Tokyo airport against her will, to fly her home. There she sought protection from Japan’s police. The next day, Poland granted her and her family asylum. She claims that the call to send her back came not from the sports ministry but from “a higher level”.

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Ms Timanovskaya joins an expanding collection of Belarusians in Europe living beyond the bailiwick of a regime whose old sobriquet of “Europe’s last dictatorship” does not fully convey its slide towards full-blown gangsterism. On the very day Ms Timanovskaya received her Polish visa, an event in Ukraine showed why being granted asylum is not a guarantee of protection.

Vitaly Shishov, who ran an NGO based in Ukraine that helps Belarusian exiles, went missing after leaving home for a morning jog in Kyiv, the capital. The next morning he was found hanging from a tree in a nearby forest. Friends say his face was bruised, his nose broken. Ukrainian police have left open the possibility that his death might be a “murder masked as a suicide”.

There is no proof that the Belarusian secret service killed Mr Shishov. But he told friends he was being followed. In June he told followers on Telegram, a social-media app: “The regime is becoming more and more terroristic. Even while abroad, you must keep your ears open.”

Belarus has form when it comes to extraterritorial gangsterism. In May it concocted a bomb threat and sent its jets to force down a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, two EU capitals, as it flew across Belarusian airspace. Roman Protasevich, an exiled dissident on board, was pried off the plane with his girlfriend and arrested.

The shockwaves from last year’s rigged presidential election and the repression that followed the ensuing mass protests have yet to dissipate. The torture of dissenters is still routine. On July 21st the police raided the offices of 14 NGOs and arrested their members. Anything short of devout loyalty to all state institutions risks punishment, as Ms Timanovskaya’s case shows. It will not have helped her that the Belarus Olympic Committee is run by Mr Lukashenko’s son. Every new wave of repression prods more Belarusians to flee.

A shaky dictatorship that borders three EU countries along with a fragile Ukraine is well placed to export its troubles. Belarus also stands accused of sending Iraqi migrants (2,600 last month alone) across its northern border into Lithuania, presumably to annoy it for giving a base in exile to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader who probably won last year’s vote.

Calls for the West to take a tougher stand against Belarus are likely to grow louder. The limited sanctions the EU imposed after the Ryanair plane was hijacked do not seem to have changed the regime’s stance. Ms Tikhanovskaya’s stock has risen a shade after her recent meetings with the leaders of America and Britain. But, like other Belarusian exiles, whether Olympic runners or dissident officials, she will be anxiously wondering what else the dictator thinks he can get away with.

An early version of this article was published online on August 3rd 2021

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Forget the border”

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