Belarus Sprinter’s Defection Sheds Light on a Dictator’s Levers of Control

When Belarusian Olympic officers got here to Kristina Timanovskaya’s room after the sprinter complained publicly about her coaches, the pinnacle of the nationwide workforce made it clear they’d an order for her to return house — and it got here from the highest.

That’s as a result of, like a lot else in Belarus, sports activities is a family-run enterprise. That household belongs to President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has held sway with authoritarian energy within the Eastern European nation for 27 years.

Ms. Timanovskaya refused and defected in an Olympic scandal reminiscent of the Cold War. On Wednesday, she arrived in Poland, which had supplied her and her husband political asylum.

Her state of affairs, although, has shed mild on an anachronistic dictatorship the place no sphere of life can evade politics, and the ruling household more and more cracks down ruthlessly on any whiff of dissent.

If not for the drama, it’s possible few within the Olympics would have paid a lot consideration to Belarus, which, in contrast to the outdated Soviet Union to which it as soon as belonged, is hardly a gold-medal powerhouse. But the defection has drawn international consideration to yet one more of the numerous methods the Lukashenko household wields its energy: sports activities.

“For Mr. Lukashenko, sports is a propaganda tool just as it is for any dictator in any totalitarian system,” mentioned Aleksandr Opeikin, the manager director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a group that opposes the federal government.

“Lukashenko always perceived the awards of athletes, medals of athletes at the Olympics, as his own medals.”

But if the use of sports activities as a propaganda instrument has a lengthy historical past, so do the embarrassing defections which have punctured the aura of invincibility fastidiously cultivated by authoritarian governments.

Dozens of Hungarian athletes refused to return house as soon as they arrived in Australia for the 1956 Olympic Games and realized how the Soviets had invaded their nation to crush a mass rebellion in opposition to Communism. At least 4 Romanians and a Russian defected through the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, together with scores of others by way of the 1970s.

After her arrival in Tokyo, Ms. Timanovskaya took to Instagram to criticize her nation’s Olympic delegation, which had added her to a relay on the final minute with out informing her.

But if Mr. Lukashenko took the criticism personally, it’s as a result of his household’s management of Belarus’s sports activities complicated is absolute, recalling Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who had appointed his son Uday as the pinnacle of their Olympic Committee in 1984.

While Saddam had Uday, Mr. Lukashenko has Viktor, his 45-year-old son, who seems to be like a youthful model of his father. An enthusiastic motorcyclist, he’s typically seen in Minsk, Belarus’s capital, on the head of parades of Harley Davidson bikes, at which he consorts with safety officers and key personalities within the authorities.

Viktor took up the reins of Belarus’s Olympic Committee in February, after his father had run it for 27 years. Human rights campaigners have accused father and son of being instantly implicated in Ms. Timanovskaya’s remedy in Tokyo.

Mr. Opeikin mentioned that if Ms. Timanovskaya had returned to Belarus, she would have possible been punished.

“I can argue that with a very high degree of probability that she would be sent to prison, tortured, deprived of sleep and would not be given food and water,” he mentioned in a telephone interview from Vilnius, Lithuania, the place he fled after final yr’s disputed election.

No presidential vote in Belarus has been judged by worldwide observers as free and truthful since 1995. But after elections final August, 200,000 protesters rallied in Minsk to protest a vote they mentioned was rigged, and Mr. Lukashenko cracked down exhausting. Since then, 35,000 folks have been arrested. Athletes weren’t spared.

In August 2020, greater than 1,000 athletes, together with Olympic medalists, signed an open letter calling for brand new elections and for an finish to the torture and mistreatment of peaceable protesters. (Ms. Timanovskaya was not one of them.)

“Sixty of those signatories were dropped from the national team, lost their funding, were forced to recant or were physically abused,” mentioned Oksana Pokalchuk, the manager director of Amnesty International Ukraine, which has been documenting abuses by Mr. Lukashenko’s authorities in opposition to athletes.

Some of them had been Olympic medalists, like Aleksandra Gerasimena, a swimmer who received a bronze medal in 2016. Today she is director of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Fund, or BSSF, a corporation based final August to assist athletes punished by the regime.

To date, Ms. Pokalchuk mentioned, 95 athletes have been detained for collaborating in peaceable protests, seven have been charged with political offenses, and 124 have suffered different kinds of repression.

“These decisions that affect the image of the country, such as Timanovskaya’s exclusion from the Olympic Games, cannot be made without Lukashenko’s knowledge and approval,” Ms. Pokalchuk mentioned. “He tries to keep an eye on everything that can at least marginally diminish his position.”

With this in thoughts, the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Fund appealed to the International Olympic Committee, which in November determined to bar Mr. Lukashenko, his son Viktor, and Dmitri Baskov, one other govt board member, from attending any Olympic occasions. It additionally suspended funding to Belarus’s nationwide Olympic committee, paying scholarships on to the athletes themselves.

A quantity of athletic competitions had been postponed or relocated from Belarus subsequently, although many organizers cited the Covid-19 pandemic relatively than political repression as the explanation. But the federal government noticed critics who wanted to be silenced.

In April, the Belarusian authorities charged Ms. Gerasimenya and Mr. Opeikin with “disseminating deliberately false information” accusing them of “appealing to foreign states and international organizations to take actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus.”

The costs, which embody injury to the nation’s “prestige in the international and political arena,” carry a potential punishment of 5 years in jail.

The crackdown on athletes has had penalties for Belarusian sport. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Belarusian athletes introduced house one gold medal, 4 silvers, and 4 bronzes. Some had been received by athletes who are actually in exile. This yr, Belarus has received just one gold medal and one bronze.

“This testifies to the fact that the sports system in Belarus does not work anymore,” Mr. Opeikin mentioned. “This is because professional personnel, due to their criticism of Lukashenko, either left the country or were fired from their posts, and now there are a huge number of nonprofessionals in sports.”

Mr. Opeikin mentioned the worldwide scandal surrounding Ms. Timanovskaya — and the workforce’s poor outcomes — has possible scared the nation’s Olympic officers, who might worry reprisals.

“Since resources are not spent on the development of sports, but on the support of simply loyal athletes, and for the preservation of this showcase, the system is crumbling in this way now,” Mr. Opeikin mentioned. “That’s why what happened happened, and now the whole world found out about it.”

In a recording of their dialog with Ms. Timanovskaya, each nationwide workforce head coach Yuri Moisevich and Belarusian Republican Track and Field Training Center deputy director Artur Shumak appeared unnerved by a attainable response from above.

Mr. Moisevich may be heard saying, as he tries to strain Ms. Timanovskaya to return house, that he’s not scared for himself “but for the team and for the entire situation here.”

“I’m in my 60s — I don’t scare anymore, but one of these tin soldiers will show up and say, ‘Sir, yes, sir! Awaiting orders!’ And he’ll purge the national team so bad that there’ll be nothing left of us. Then you’ll go down in history — they’ll say it all started with Timanovskaya. She started this whole mess, and then they changed the leadership to put things in order.”

In a latest TV look, President Lukashenko appeared to place the blame on the coaches.

“This is anger, I’m talking about sports, because we are all sitting, watching the championship,” he mentioned. “Some countries I will not name, three to five times smaller than ours, have gold medals. And we are all glad that we got to the final … But here we need to sort it out with the coaches. The first fault is the coach.”

Mr. Opeikin questioned aloud if the management of the workforce would additionally select to not return to Belarus as soon as the Tokyo Games are over.

“I know that the Belarusian delegation is now also very afraid and I do not exclude that by the end of the games they will also refuse to fly to Belarus,” he mentioned. “They understand what could happen to them, that they will be fired or they will be interrogated in prison. They do not rule it out anymore.”

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