“When the crisis has been internationalized, when there is danger not only for Belarusian citizens but European citizens, this made European politicians to react much more actively, to understand that this is snot a crisis that can be in the borders of Belarus, that can be kept inside Belarus.”
Who is Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya?
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is a world-class sprinter from Belarus. She’s won silver and gold medals in European races, and qualified for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
But while in Tokyo, after competing in the 100-meter sprint, her coaches tried to convince her to run the 200-meter race, a race she hadn’t trained at all for, because other Belarusian sprinters had not undergone the required doping tests required to race.
Tsimanouskaya took to Instagram to express her frustration that the coaches were pressuring her into the decision. The post got the attention of her coaches, along with the Belarusian National Olympic Committee.
On the day of the 200-meter, her coach, along with a team representative, told her that they would be taking her back home, pulling her out of the race saying that doctors were worried about her emotional state.
When they got to the airport, though, Tsimanouskaya made contact with Japanese police officers, and essentially defected altogether from Belarus.
“They did not expect that in the airport I can approach the police,” she said in a Reuters interview. “They think that we are scared to make a move, that we are afraid to speak, afraid to tell the truth to the whole world. But I am not afraid.”
Where is she now?
Tsimanouskaya received offers of asylum from several countries, including the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria, but she took a humanitarian visa from Poland.
After staying two nights in the Polish embassy, she left Tokyo to go to Poland, where she is now.
Her situation brought on support from around the world. In addition to the countries that offered her asylum, a group called the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, whose goal is to support athletes facing scrutiny over their political views, bought her plane ticket to Poland.
And according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a representative was sent to accompany her before her departure to Warsaw, saying “She told us that she feels safe.”
On the other hand, both of her coaches were stripped of their Olympic accreditation and kicked out of the Olympic Village, according to the IOC.
Why did Belarus respond this way?
Speaking with TMS, Pavel Slunkin, a Belarusian foreign policy expert and fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that it comes largely from a sense of insecurity.
“The regime doesn’t feel secure in the sense that the people don’t like [Belarusian President] Lukashenko, that they would like to have changes inside the country, and they know and they understand that if they stop oppressions, if they stop persecuting people, if they stop punishing them, the people will understand this as a sign of weakness, as a sign that a new window of opportunity has been opened.”
The other reason Slunkin gave for the reaction is that Lukashenko sees sports as a way to gain political popularity, putting lots of time, energy, and money into supporting Belarusian athletes.
“He thinks that they should be thankful and they have to support him, or at least not criticize him, so when they criticize him, he sees in his eyes it looks like a betrayal.”
What about that arrested opposition journalist from earlier this year?
On May 23, a Belarusian fighter jet escorted a passenger jet flying from Greece to Lithuania, claiming that the plane needed to make an emergency landing because there was a possible bomb on the plane.
When the plane landed, Belarusian law enforcement arrested Roman Protasevich, a journalist critical of the President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko.
The move was met with global outcry, and the European Union put sanctions on Belarus, calling all airlines operating in the union to stop flying in Belarus airspace.
And, in response to the sanctions, President Lukashenko said, “As we predicted, our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state. They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality.” He also called Pratasevich a “terrorist” who was planning to start a “bloody rebellion.”
Speaking with TMS, Benno Zogg, a senior researcher in the Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security Team at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, said at the time that the arrest of Protasevich is part of a bigger wave of pushback from the Lukashenko regime against individuals and organizations who speak out against the government.
Zogg had also pointed out that people were not necessarily happy with the current state of Belarus, but had also suffered from a lack of any progress. “The level of paralysis is high.”
Why are both these incidents so important?
According to Slunkin, Belarusians previously received mainly rhetorical support from other countries, rather than support in the forms of things like sanctions.
“We didn’t see any real sanctions against the regime, because it was an internal crisis, it was the problem of Belarusians who are persecuted by the government,” he said. “Belarusians received rhetorical support … but this is just nothing for Belarusians.”
But that changed with the arrest of Protasevich. “The Roman Protasevich arrest has internationalized the crisis, it has shown that the crisis is not over, that it still endangers not only Belarusians, but also the people from Europe.”
“Before he was arrested there were 33 or even 34 thousand people who were arrested, and no reaction from the international community,” said Slunkin.
“When the crisis has been internationalized, when there is danger not only for Belarusian citizens but European citizens, this made European politicians to react much more actively, to understand that this is not a crisis that can be in the borders of Belarus, that can be kept inside Belarus.”
How are the two incidents related?
The main similarity between the two incidents is that they both happened in places where there shouldn’t have been much government control over people critical of the government.
“This autocracy is now moving outward,” said Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration on his podcast, “Pod Save the World.”
“It’s doing so in venues where people are supposed to be free,” said Rhodes, adding, “it does require a kind of concerted multilateral effort to push back on autocracy infecting those kinds of spaces.”
This effort has been made pretty clear by the West. The United States is reportedly looking at imposing new sanctions on the country on the one-year anniversary of an election widely criticized as fraudulent.
And the EU has continued to put pressure on the country with sanctions since the incident with the journalist, mainly targeting its main export industries.
According to Slunkin, there are two main things one must understand to get to a solution. First, you have to understand that the US and the EU don’t have a ton of leverage over Belarus, with its strongest point of leverage really being economic (meaning sanctions and things are probably the most effective thing they can do).
But a common fear with sanctions on Belarus is that they might turn to Russia to make up for the financial difference, which would give Russian President Vladimir Putin more leverage, and potentially cause further problems for democratic countries in the West.
The second thing to understand though, according to Slunkin, is that Lukashenko isn’t likely to let go of whatever control he has over the country, even if the pressure is coming from places like Russia, which have similar interests.
Slunkin’s position on the situation is that this means sanctions from the EU and US may end up just giving Russia more leverage and it also doesn’t mean that Lukashenko will give up control.
But opponents to this position say that, much like with places such as Cuba or Myanmar, sanctions could have heavy-handed consequences for average citizens, without hurting the government hardly at all.
What is truly coming next is up in the air, but it’s clear that Belarus has gotten the attention of the international community as a whole, and it’s unlikely that the EU and US are going to sit idly by.
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