Olympic intrigue: Poland grants Belarusian sprinter visa, head of Belarusian exile group found dead

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

If you like political intrigue and Cold War-style defections during the Olympics, there is a story developing in Tokyo that is worth following. A female Belarusian sprinter has defected and been granted a humanitarian visa by Poland. Her husband managed to get out of Belarus, no easy task, and sought safety in Ukraine until he can join his wife. The story develops further today as news of the death of the leader of a Belarusian exile group based in Ukraine surfaced. The plot thickens.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya boldly criticized Belarusian team officials on social media through her Instagram account. Her criticism was on the way the team officials were managing the team. She said that she was put in the 4×400 relay even though she has never raced in the event. She was then barred from competing in the 200 meters. Tsimanouskaya said she had never trained for the 4×400 relay and wasn’t prepared to compete. She requested the Court of Arbitration for Sport to rule that she could run in the 200 meters, which it denied. She was being told to run the 4×400 because drug testing issues with her teammates resulted in them not making the trip to Tokyo.

Tsimanouskaya’s social media activity set off a massive backlash in state-run media in Belarus. Belarus has cracked down on dissent since the presidential election a year ago. Mass protests have been held since the election. This public feud was never going to go well for her – President Alexander Lukashenko is a brutal authoritarian with a history of going to extremes to handle dissent. Lukashenko and his son, Viktor, have led the Belarus National Olympic Committee for more than 25 years. Both men are banned from the Olympics by the IOC over “complaints from athletes that they faced reprisals and intimidation during the crackdown following the wave of anti-government protests over the last year.”

Krystsina claims that she was being forced to leave Japan and return to Belarus after her social media post. She was taken to Haneda Airport in Tokyo where she sought protection from the police. She told reporters that she would seek asylum. She essentially claimed she was being kidnapped. “I was put under pressure and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the country without my consent,” she said. She said coaches came to her room in the Olympic Village Sunday night and told her to pack. Then they took her to the airport.

Poland, to the west of Belarus, has become a haven for those seeking to escape the political crackdowns in Belarus. Krystsina said those team officials made it clear she would face punishment upon her return to Belarus.

Krystsina’s husband is in Ukraine now. Lukashenko has made it all but impossible for people to leave the country so it is unclear exactly how he was able to escape. However, he likely had some help from an exile group based in Ukraine. The group, Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU) was run by Vitaly Shishov. He was reported missing Monday and today he was found hanged in a forested area of a park near his Kyiv home. Coincidence? Not likely. We’re talking about Communists trained by KBG and a brutal dictator who doles out draconian punishment to his opposition.

Ukrainian police opened a criminal case and said they would investigate whether Shishov’s death was a suicide or “premeditative murder meant to look like suicide.”

The BDU helps fleeing and exiled Belarusians find accommodation, jobs and legal advice in Ukraine. In a statement on Tuesday, the BDU said Shishov had been “under surveillance” and that they had received warnings about possible threats prior to his death.

Unfortunately, Krystsina’s parents and grandmother are still in Belarus. They have told her not to come home and that strange things are happening now. BDU released a statement today.

On Tuesday the BDU said Shishov was “under surveillance” before his death and described him as a threat to the Lukashenko regime.

“Vitaly was under surveillance. There were appropriate notifications to the police about the facts. Also we were repeatedly warned by local sources and by our own people in Belarus about all kinds of provocations up to kidnapping and liquidation,” BDU said in a Tuesday statement. “Vitaly treated these warnings with stoicism and humor, stating that at least in this way, it would be possible for BDU to get out of the info vacuum.”

The Olympics have been used by asylum-seekers for decades. It was particularly popular during the Cold War for athletes to try to escape Communist countries.

“The Olympics provide a very attractive opportunity for people to escape difficult situations at home, most often political repression,” said Barbara Keys, a historian at Durham University.

Poland has given the athlete a humanitarian visa, and she will fly to Warsaw on Wednesday to seek asylum, according to Alexander Opeikin, executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, a group that opposes the Belarusian government.

Let’s hope that her husband can stay alive in Ukraine long enough to get to Warsaw to join his wife.