Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, in which longtime dictator Aleksander Lukashenko faced a more-formidable-than-expected challenge from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a candidate who had previously been imprisoned by Lukashenko’s government. The election was marred by allegations of fraud and met with mass protest, both in the streets and online, and widespread international criticism. This in turn provoked a harsh crackdown from the government, with hundreds of activists, journalists, and critics of the regime arrested over the past year and many protesters subjected to torture. As the anniversary approaches, the regime not only appears more entrenched than ever, but it also appears to be taking its campaign of repression abroad.
On Tuesday, the body of Vitaly Shishov, who ran an organization helping Belarusians flee persecution, was found hanged in a park in Kyiv, where he had been living since leaving Belarus last year. Shishov was reported missing by his partner after he didn’t return from a jog the day before. Police are investigating the possibility that Shishov was murdered and the scene was set up to look like a suicide. A colleague of Shishov, who found the body, told the media that it had bruises suggesting Shishov had been beaten before his death. The colleague also claimed to have been told by Ukrainian intelligence officials that a hit squad had been sent from Belarus to “liquidate” them both.
While nothing has been proven yet, the suspicious incident is likely chilling for Lukashenko’s opponents, particularly coming on the heels of another tale of a high-profile Belarusian in peril abroad.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a sprinter on the country’s Olympic team, says team officials took her to the airport in Tokyo on Sunday against her will and tried to force her to board a flight back to Belarus after she had criticized her coaches on social media. She was eventually escorted from the airport by Japanese police and has been granted a humanitarian visa by Poland. Tsmimanouskaya’s offending Instagram comments had been athletic rather than political in nature—she complained of being added to a relay team without her knowledge after some of her teammates didn’t pass doping tests—but as in many authoritarian countries, the line between sports and politics is thin: Lukashenko was himself the head of Belarus’ Olympic committee until earlier this year when he was replaced by his son. A number of prominent athletes were jailed or kicked off teams for participating in post-election protests, and Belarus was stripped of its right to co-host this year’s ice hockey world championship amid international human rights criticism.
Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled former presidential candidate, compared the runner’s case to that of the exiled journalist who was abducted off a Ryanair flight in May after Belarusian authorities forced it to land. “No Belarusian who has left Belarus’ borders is safe because they can be kidnapped, just like Krystsina Tsimanouskaya or Roman Protasevich,” she wrote on the messaging app Telegram, which has become one of the opposition movement’s primary tools. These aren’t even the only recent cases of this type. In April, two Belarusian government critics—one of whom, lawyer Youras Ziankovich, is a U.S. citizen—were abducted in Moscow, with the cooperation of Russian authorities, and driven 700 miles across the border, where they were imprisoned by the KGB, as Belarus’ security forces are still known, and accused of being part of a U.S.-backed coup plot.
Yana Gorokhovskaia, a senior research analyst at Freedom House who studies transnational repression, says these acts show an evolution in the regime’s tactics when it comes to dealing with the opposition. “A lot of Lukashenko’s original dissident strategy was to push people out of the country.
In the past that has really diminished their capacity for activism,” she says.
Those pushed out include, most prominently, Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to flee after the election last year. But, says Gorokhovskaia, “now, it’s having the opposite effect where people outside the country are being really active and mobilizing forces.” Case in point: Tsikhanouskaya met in Washington with Joe Biden last week and in London with Boris Johnson on Tuesday.
When not pursuing critics outside his borders, Lukashenko has also been using the borders themselves to punish his critics. Neighboring Lithuania, where Tsikhanouskaya is now based and which has staunchly criticized Lukashnko, this week accused Minsk of deliberately organizing convoys of migrants from the Middle East to cross into the EU member state. This tactic echoes that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has used the (much, much larger) population of refugees it hosts to threaten Europe in the past.
Lukashenko’s targeting fits into a much larger pattern of transnational repression—governments targeting their opponents for assassination or kidnapping aboard. The Saudi government’s 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was the most high-profile example of this in recent years, but Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran have engaged in similar behavior.
Exile, increasingly, does not entail safety.