If you were watching the Olympic Games, you may have heard of the controversy surrounding Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who criticized her coaches on social media. They tried to force her to go home early, only to wind up pulled from the games themselves.
It’s easy to see why Tsimanouskaya would want to avoid home. Her country, sadly, has been in a mess since Belarus held its fraudulent presidential election one year ago today. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, its disputed president, has demonstrated the lengths to which he’s willing to go to try to preserve his regime.
On August 9, 2020, then-26-year incumbent Lukashenka claimed victory in an election that was deemed fraudulent by poll workers and much of the Belarusian population. Belarusians poured into the streets of Minsk to protest the supposed election result when the polls closed that evening.
Over the course of the past year, thousands of Belarusians have been detained and dozens beaten by riot police and members of the armed forces. And Belarusian activists, journalists, members of the opposition, and athletes have been abducted, imprisoned, threatened, murdered, and forced off planes, even beyond Belarus’ borders.
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have protested since then. Citizens continue to protest today, but their gatherings are much smaller in scale. The state crackdown has been so strong that most Belarusians are now too fearful to publicly resist the Lukashenka regime. They fear for their lives, and understandably so.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’s main opposition leader, also fears for her life. Ever since the night of the election last August, she has resided in Vilnius, Lithuania. However, she has demonstrated a strength nearly beyond belief.
She did not originally intend on running in the Belarusian presidential election or on becoming the opposition leader thereafter. Formerly a full-time stay-at-home mother, she only ran in the election because her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was barred from doing so after being arrested for organizing pro-democracy protests.
But since last August, she has made tremendous progress on the pro-democracy front for Belarus.
She has continued to call for the release of more than 600 political prisoners jailed in Belarus. And she has rightfully and continuously promoted the notion that Belarusians deserve the right to choose their own leader without interference from the Lukashenka regime or any other power.
She has been the figure that Belarusians need in order to sustain their hope for a true democracy for their country.
Belarus celebrated its 30-year independence from the USSR on July 27, and yet Lukashenka still runs the country as if it is still a part of it.
On Sept. 7, 2020, Maria Kalesnikava, a prominent opposition leader, was abducted by masked security agents and taken to Belarus’ southern border with Ukraine. Two others—Belarusian activists Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov—were taken with her.
The security agents warned the three of them that if they did not leave Belarus, they would be jailed indefinitely. But it appears that Kalesnikava was treated the most harshly; the agents placed a bag over her head and threatened to kill her.
Rodnenkov and Kravtsov were expelled to Ukraine. But Kalesnikava was thrown in jail because she refused to leave her home country. She even ripped up her passport so that Ukraine could not accept her. Her trial began last week.
Maksim Znak, another member of the opposition, was placed on trial with her. He was arrested on Sept. 9 for his membership in the opposition-run Coordination Council, which has been deemed illegal by the Belarusian government.
Other prominent figures such as Vikatar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who both sought to run in the presidential election, remain in Belarusian prison. Barbyka was recently transferred to a penal colony with a sentence of 14 years. And there are numerous others who remain in custody.
Perhaps the most vivid examples, however, of Lukashenka’s wayward regime occurred within the last few months.
In May, the Belarusian government used a fake bomb threat to force down a Ryanair passenger flight so that authorities could arrest Lukashenka-critic Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Lukashenka personally called for a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept the plane to escort it to the Minsk airport.
The latest news is that Pratasevich and Sapega remain under house arrest. Pratasevich allegedly has KGB agents at his side 24/7.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, meanwhile, feared she would be imprisoned if she returned to Belarus, and through a course of events was granted asylum in Poland. She plans to stay there until it is safe to return to her home country.
On August 3, Vitaly Shyshov, a Belarusian activist living in Kyiv, was found dead a day after disappearing near his home. He had been the head of Belarusian House, a group in Ukraine that helps Belarusian citizens escape repression under the Lukashenka regime, and was hanged in a park. The police said that “[a]ll scenarios would be investigated, including the possibility of murder disguised as suicide.”
Until Lukashenka resigns, Belarus as a nation will continue to suffer under his regime. But in the meantime, the world should keep Belarusians in mind. They are a people fighting for their God-given rights, and the right to choose their own leader. They should be celebrated for their magnificent strength.
Alexis Mrachek is a research associate specializing in Russia and Eurasia affairs at The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy.