How sports activities grew to become a ‘battleground for reprisals’ in Belarus

Alexander Opeikin led some of the profitable handball golf equipment in ex-Soviet Belarus.

These days, he’s a fugitive needed for “harming national security”, living in exile in Ukraine.

In 2012, he based the Vityaz membership within the nation of 9.5 million folks, whose President Alexander Lukashenko champions sports activities as an ideological pillar of his decades-long rule.

Since assuming workplace in 1994, he has handed athletes authorities awards, keys to automobiles and flats, and 1000’s of {dollars} in money for his or her victories at worldwide championships and Olympic medals.

“He tried to make athletes loyal to him and translate this loyalty further to their audience,” Opeikin, 35, instructed Al Jazeera.

Lukashenko’s tenure as head of the Belarusian Olympic Committee (NOC) was solely barely shorter than his ongoing presidency – he terminated it final November after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) barred him from attending the Tokyo Games.

Now, the NOC is headed by Lukashenko’s eldest son, Viktor, who was additionally banned from attending.

The ban adopted Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on mass anti-government protests which gripped Belarus following his victory in a disputed August 9, 2020 vote.

The ballot handed the 66-year-old a sixth presidential time period, however his political opponents and a few ballot employees claimed that his landslide victory was rigged.

Athletes protest

Opeikin’s handball membership stopped coaching in protest and was faraway from the nationwide championship.

He and its members took half within the current rallies and had been amongst greater than 1,000 athletes who signed a petition urging Lukashenko to cease the crackdown.

Lukashenko thought-about it “treason”.

“He got so scared of protesting sportsmen because he knows very well that renowned athletes strongly influence public opinion,” stated Opeikin, who fled to neighbouring Ukraine after being charged with “harming the national security” and “disseminating deliberately false information” in April.

“Lukashenko considers them all traitors,” he added.

These days, Opeikin heads the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a gaggle based mostly within the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, that helps athletes in hassle or exile.

At least 95 of those that signed the petition confronted detention after collaborating within the protests, seven face prison costs they imagine are politically motivated, and one other 124 suffered different types of abuse, in accordance with the Ukrainian department of world human rights group Amnesty International.

“Belarusian athletes have paid a high price for daring to speak out and it’s clear that sport is now a battleground for reprisals in Belarus,” Amnesty’s researcher Heather McGill stated in an announcement final week.

No extra video games

But the plight of Belarusian athletes solely gained worldwide consideration earlier this month, when Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused her staff’s orders to travel home early from the Tokyo Games.

The 24-year-old stated she feared for her security in Belarus.

Even after Poland granted her a humanitarian visa, considerations over her safety pressured her to modify planes on the final minute and fly to Warsaw through Vienna.

Those considerations had been fuelled by an incident in May which noticed Lukashenko dispatch a navy jet to drive a Lithuania-bound passenger airplane flying over Belarus to land in Minsk, after which police arrested on-board opposition journalist Roman Protasevich for his alleged involvement in “extremism”.

Protasevich, who faces as much as 15 years in jail if convicted, appeared in a “confession” video that supporters stated was recorded underneath duress.

Then one other Belarusian Olympian determined to defect.

On August 3, decathlete Andreu Krauchanka, who received a silver medal on the 2008 Beijing Olympics and holds the Belarusian nationwide document for the occasion, determined to remain in Germany along with his spouse, heptathlete Yana Maksimava, she wrote on Instagram.

“One can lose not only freedom, but life there,” she wrote underneath a photograph of herself and her small son.

“It is possible to breathe freely here and be one of those who fights for the liberty of their people, relatives, and loved ones; we will prevail for sure,” she added.

The couple made their resolution hours after 26-year-old Belarusian opposition determine Vital Shyshou was discovered hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv.

Ukrainian police stated there have been traces of beating on his physique, and his pals declare he was assassinated by Belarusian safety brokers.

For his half, Lukashenko has denied that Belarus had any half in Shyshou’s loss of life and has stated he believes Tsimanouskaya was “manipulated” into her resolution by “outside forces”.

Rule of legislation ‘meltdown’

Since it gained independence in 1991, not one of the elections in Belarus has been deemed free and truthful by worldwide observers, and every one has gone hand in hand with a violent squashing of dissent.

But final 12 months’s rallies – and Lukashenko’s response – had been unprecedented in scope.

They drew as much as 200,000 folks and lasted for weeks, paralysing city centres and prompting strikes amongst employees in state-run factories, Lukashenko’s core supporters.

Some 30,000 protesters had been arrested, rights teams stated, and 1000’s had been allegedly crushed.

Seven folks had been shot through the protests or died shortly after them, in accordance with unbiased media studies.

“What we have seen in the time since [the election], is a complete meltdown of the rule of law in the country, and the beginning of the end for the Lukashenko regime,” Ivar Dale, a senior coverage adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a rights watchdog, instructed Al Jazeera.

But the protesters didn’t have a charismatic and decided chief.

Presidential hopeful and political first-timer Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who got here second in final 12 months’s ballot with 10 % of the vote, fled to neighbouring Lithuania, and older, extra seasoned opposition figures didn’t dare to return to Belarus from exile.

Economic turbulence

Despite being sanctioned by the West over its response to final 12 months’s protests and cornered politically, Lukashenko’s Belarus nonetheless retains its head above water economically.

Last 12 months, many specialists predicted an financial disaster, however the post-pandemic financial increase noticed costs for Belarus’s predominant exports – potassium fertiliser, petrol and foodstuffs – skyrocket.

Belarus has Soviet-era chemical crops and two big oil processing crops that work on discounted Russian crude.

Its booming IT sector, which has loved tax breaks and different perks, additionally thrives although many corporations and programmers fled the nation amid the crackdown.

However, 2022 could also be way more detrimental, specialists warn.

“Next year, a prolonged recession in the Belarusian economy may start, [coupled with] a stagflation if the inflation factor is added,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch instructed Al Jazeera.

He additionally stated Russia has decreased its subsidies to Minsk from 5 % of the Belarusian gross home product (GDP) to about 2 %.

For a long time, Belarus has been depending on Russia’s multibillion- loans and despatched most of its exports to its big japanese neighbour, the place a whole lot of 1000’s of Belarusians work within the building and agriculture sectors.

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