Belarus Sprinter’s Defection Sheds Light on a Dictator’s Levers of Control
When Belarusian Olympic officials came to Kristina Timanovskaya’s bedroom after the sprinter publicly complained about her coaches, the national team leader made it clear that they had an order for her to return home – and it came from above.
This is because, like many other things in Belarus, sport is a family business. This family belongs to President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has reigned over authoritarian power in this Eastern European country 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 offered her and her husband political asylum.
His situation, however, has brought to light an anachronistic dictatorship where no sphere of life can escape politics, and the ruling family increasingly ruthlessly suppresses any outburst of dissent.
Without the drama, it’s likely that few interested in the Olympics would have paid much attention to Belarus, which, unlike the former Soviet Union to which it once belonged, is hardly a medal-winning power. gold. But the defection has drawn worldwide attention to another of the many ways the Lukashenko family wields their power: sport.
“For Lukashenko, sport is a propaganda tool like any dictator in any totalitarian system,” said Aleksandr Opeikin, executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a group that opposes the government.
“Lukashenko has always seen athlete awards, athletes’ medals at the Olympics, as his own medals.”
But while the use of sport as a propaganda tool has a long history, so too have the embarrassing defections that have punctured the aura of invincibility carefully cultivated by authoritarian governments.
Dozens of Hungarian athletes refused to return home once they arrived in Australia for the 1956 Olympics and learned how the Soviets invaded their country to crush a mass uprising against Communism. At least four Romanians and one Russian defected during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, along with dozens more in the 1970s.
After arriving in Tokyo, Ms Timanovskaya took to Instagram to criticize her country’s Olympic delegation, which added her to a stint at the last minute without letting them know.
But if Mr. Lukashenko took the criticisms personally, it is because his family’s control over the Belarusian sports complex is absolute, recalls Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who had appointed his son Uday to head their Olympic committee in 1984.
While Saddam had Uday, Mr. Lukashenko brought Viktor, his 45-year-old son, who looks like a younger version of his father. An enthusiastic biker, he is often seen in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, leading the Harley Davidson motorcycle parades, in which he rubs shoulders with security officials and key government figures.
Viktor took the reins of the Belarusian Olympic Committee in February, after his father had led it for 27 years. Human rights activists accused the father and son of being directly involved in the treatment of Ms. Timanovskaya in Tokyo.
Mr Opeikin said that if Ms Timanovskaya had returned to Belarus, she would probably have been punished.
“I can say that with a very high degree of probability, she would be sent to prison, tortured, deprived of sleep and would not receive any food or water,” he said in a telephone interview from Vilnius, in Lithuania, where he fled after last year’s disputed election.
No presidential vote in Belarus has been deemed free and fair by international observers since 1995. But after the elections last August, 200,000 demonstrators gathered in Minsk to protest a vote they said was rigged. and Mr. Lukashenko cracked down harshly. Since then, 35,000 people have been arrested. The athletes were not spared.
In August 2020, more than 1,000 athletes, including Olympic medalists, signed an open letter calling for new elections and an end to the torture and ill-treatment of peaceful protesters. (Ms. Timanovskaya was not one of them.)
“Sixty of these signatories were excluded from the national team, lost their funding, were forced to retract or were physically assaulted,” said Oksana Pokalchuk, executive director of Amnesty International Ukraine, who documented the abuses committed by the government of Lukashenko against the athletes. .
Some of them were Olympic medalists, such as Aleksandra Gerasimena, a bronze medalist swimmer in 2016. She is now director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, or BSSF, an organization founded last August to support athletes punished by the diet.
To date, Ms. Pokalchuk said, 95 athletes have been arrested for participating in peaceful protests, seven have been charged with political offenses and 124 have suffered other forms of repression.
“These decisions which affect the image of the country, such as the exclusion of Timanovskaya from the Olympic Games, cannot be taken without the knowledge and approval of Lukashenko,” Ms. Pokalchuk said. “He’s trying to keep an eye out for anything that can at least slightly diminish his position. “
In this spirit, the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund appealed to the International Olympic Committee, which decided in November to prohibit Mr. Lukashenko, his son Viktor and Dmitry Baskov, another member of the board of directors, from attending. at any Olympic event. It also suspended funding for the Belarusian National Olympic Committee, paying scholarships directly to the athletes themselves.
A number of sports competitions were subsequently postponed or moved from Belarus, although many organizers cited the Covid-19 pandemic rather than political repression as the reason. But the government saw criticism that needed to be silenced.
In April, Belarusian authorities charged Ms Gerasimenya and Mr Opeikin with “spreading deliberately false information”, accusing them of “calling on foreign states and international organizations to take measures aimed at undermining national security. of the Republic of Belarus “.
The charges, which notably undermine the “prestige of the country on the international and political scene”, are liable to a potential sentence of five years in prison.
The crackdown on athletes has had an impact on Belarusian sport. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Belarusian athletes won one gold, four silver and four bronze. Some were won by athletes now in exile. This year Belarus won only one gold and one bronze.
“This testifies to the fact that the sports system in Belarus is no longer functioning,” said Opeikin. “This is because the professional staff, because of their criticism of Lukashenko, left the country or were dismissed from their posts, and there are now a large number of non-professionals in sport.”
Mr Opeikin said the international scandal surrounding Ms Timanovskaya – and the team’s poor performance – had likely frightened the country’s Olympic officials, who might fear retaliation.
“Since the resources are not spent on the development of the sport, but on supporting simply loyal athletes, and on preserving this showcase, the system is collapsing in this way now,” said Mr. Opeikin. . “That’s why what happened happened, and now the whole world has found out.”
In a recording of their conversation with Ms Timanovskaya, national team head coach Yuri Moisevich and deputy director of the Belarusian Republican Athletics Training Center Artur Shumak appeared baffled by a possible reaction from above.
Mr Moisevich can be heard saying, as he tries to pressure Ms Timanovskaya to return home, that he is not afraid for himself “but for the team and for the whole situation. here “.
“I’m in my sixties – I’m not scared anymore, but one of those tin soldiers will show up and say, ‘Sir, yes, sir! Waiting for orders! ‘ And he will purge the national team so much that nothing will be left of us. Then you will go down in history – they will say that it all started with Timanovskaya. She started this whole mess and then they changed the direction to get it right. “
In a recent television appearance, President Lukashenko appeared to blame the coaches.
“It’s anger, I’m talking about sport, because we’re all sitting there watching the championship,” he said. “Some countries that I won’t name, three to five times smaller than ours, have gold medals. And we are all happy to have reached the final… But now, we have to settle that with the coaches. The first fault is the coach.
Mr Opeikin wondered aloud if the team’s management would also choose not to return to Belarus once the Tokyo Games are over.
“I know that the Belarusian delegation is now also very afraid and I do not exclude that at the end of the games they will also refuse to go to Belarus,” he said. “They understand what could happen to them, that they will be fired or that they will be questioned in prison. They no longer exclude it.
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