Belarus is making the rest of Europe nervous

KRYSTINA TIMANOVSKAYA is not your typical dissident. A track-and-field Olympian representing Belarus in Tokyo, she has never publicly criticised the government nor its despotic president, Alexander Lukashenko. Her crime was to complain on social media that her coaches registered her for the 4×400-metre relay without telling her. They took her to Tokyo airport against her will for a flight home. There she sought protection from Japanese police; the next day, August 2nd, Poland granted asylum to her and her family. She claims the call to send her home came not from the sports ministry but “a higher level”.

Ms Timanovskaya joins an expanding collection of Belarusians in Europe living beyond the bailiwick of a regime whose old sobriquet, “Europe’s last dictatorship”, does not adequately capture its ever-worsening gangsterism. But asylum is not the guarantee of protection from Mr Lukashenko’s clutches that refugees would like it to be. An event in Ukraine on the day Ms Timanovskaya received her visa underlined just how precarious it can be.

Vitaly Shishov, the head of an NGO based in Ukraine that offers housing and legal help to exiles, went missing after leaving home for a morning jog on the outskirts of Kyiv. The following morning he was found hanging from a tree in a nearby forest. His friends claim that his face was bruised and his nose was broken. Ukrainian police opened an investigation, leaving open the possibility that his death might be a “murder masked as a suicide”. (The picture shows activists in Kyiv, holding Mr Shisov’s photo.)

Mr Shishov’s NGO accused the Belarusian secret service of killing him. There is no proof of that yet. But Mr Shishov was worried. He told his friends he was being followed. He had recently created a channel on Telegram, a social-media app, aiming to unmask scheming in Ukraine by the Belarusian KGB. “The regime is becoming more and more terroristic,” he told readers in a message on June 4th. “Even while abroad, you need to keep your ears open.” Mr Shishov died in “an ideal place for this kind of crime”, with no cameras nearby and just a two-hour drive from Ukraine’s Belarusian border, says a friend who formed part of a search party.

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

Mr Shishov’s death comes amid continuing shockwaves following last year’s rigged presidential election, which spurred an unprecedented outburst of protest that the thin-skinned Mr Lukashenko has been avenging ever since. Torture of detainees has been commonplace. On July 21st police raided the offices of 14 NGOs and arrested their members. Anything short of devout loyalty to all state institutions risks severe punishment, as Ms Timanovskaya’s case shows (and it probably did not help that the Belarusian Olympic Committee, the target of her ire, is run by Mr Lukashenko’s son). Each new wave of repression prompts more Belarusians to flee.

A tottering dictatorship that borders three EU countries and fragile Ukraine is in a superb position to export chaos. Belarus also stands accused of sending Iraqi migrants across its northern border to Lithuania, possibly as punishment for providing a base in exile for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader and probable winner of the 2020 election.

The 2,600 Iraqi migrants that Lithuanian authorities nabbed along the border last month is a tiny figure, but mighty as a share of population: akin to 62,000 migrants streaming into Britain. Iraqi Airways, a national carrier, recently announced plans to double the number of flights from Baghdad to Minsk, and on August 2nd opened direct flights there from three smaller cities. On August 3rd Lithuania’s interior ministry published footage of what it claims is a Belarusian border-patrol car giving migrants directions to the border.

Calls for a tougher stance towards Belarus from the West will grow. The limited sanctions imposed by the EU in June following the plane-hijacking do not seem to have changed the regime’s calculus. Ms Tikhanovskaya’s international stock rose a few notches this week after back-to-back schmoozings with the leaders of America and Britain, Joe Biden and Boris Johnson. But like most Belarusian exiles, she will be anxiously wondering what else the dictatorship of Belarus thinks it can get away with.

Roy Walsh

Roy Walsh

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