The saga of the sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has shown how the Belarusian government’s brutal suppression of all criticism has politicised the lives and actions of even those hesitant to openly oppose President Alexander Lukashenko.
“I am stunned that this situation has become a political scandal,” Tsimanouskaya said during a press-conference in Warsaw, where she arrived from Tokyo via Vienna on Wednesday. “This situation was only about sport … all that I wanted was for people to take responsibility.”
Until she was publicly attacked as a traitor on television last week, Tsimanouskaya said, she had planned to return to Belarus and not to seek refuge in an EU country. She would still be ready to go back when she felt safe, she added.
“All I want is to remain in the sport and continue my sporting career,” she told journalists.
In broad strokes, the blowback to the government pressure was reminiscent of the emergence of the country’s top opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who became a reluctant presidential candidate for the opposition only after her husband was imprisoned by Lukashenko. If elected, she had told supporters, she would seek to hold new elections and resign.
Now in exile, Tsikhanouskaya has become an internationally recognised figure, meeting with Joe Biden and Boris Johnson in recent weeks to lobby for sanctions against Belarus and greater support for the opposition to Lukashenko.
She was one of three women who formed a triumvirate of female politicians last year before Lukashenko launched a broad crackdown on the opposition. Another, Maria Kalensikava, is on trial accused of seeking to overthrow the government and threatening state security. She faces 12 years if convicted.
Asked about her own freedom of speech in Belarus, Tsimanouskaya described a tightrope she was forced to walk in daily life.
“I can say that I always openly expressed my opinion,” she said on Thursday. “But you always have to watch your words so that it doesn’t lead to consequences. Yes, in Belarus not just I but everyone is afraid to say the wrong thing.”
Pavel Latushko, a Belarusian opposition member in exile, said Tsimanouskaya was “outside of politics” during her press conference on Thursday, shielding her from fielding questions about Lukashenko or the opposition.
Yet it seems difficult, to imagine anything outside of politics in Belarus at this point, where even NGOs have been shuttered in recent weeks for their perceived ties to the west.
The threat to athletes has become so large that an entire organisation, the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), has emerged to protect those facing pressure.
“Lukashenko knows perfectly well how influential athletes are for society … he has always tried to keep them close to him,” said Alexander Opeikin, the executive director of the BSSF, which helped Tsimanouskaya connect with Polish authorities after she appealed for help while in Japan.
He believed that Lukashenko had personally intervened to demand Tsimanouskaya’s return to Minsk, adding that the athlete only decided to go public once it became clear she was in certain danger.
“She understood they were taking her to Minsk to do something to her,” Opeikin said in an interview. “That’s when she decided she had to get out.”