Belarus: targeting of critics likely to intensify as Lukashenko expands his reach

Nearly one year after the presidential election that plunged Belarus into a crisis of political legitimacy, persecution of government critics and activists appears to be on the rise.

Two recent incidents – a Belarusian Olympian refusing to return to Belarus from Tokyo, and the suspected murder of a Belarusian activist in Ukraine – show that Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko’s acts against dissidents are transcending international borders.

Lukashenko was declared the winner of the August 9 2020 presidential election, leading to his sixth consecutive term as president. This was despite surveys predicting a landslide victory for his main opponent Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, and subsequent reports of mass electoral irregularities.

Following the announcement of the electoral results, unprecedented mass protests broke out, and Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania amid rising concerns over her safety. But the movement has lost much of its momentum compared to when it first began – likely due to relentless government repression

Additionally, EU sanctions have been relatively ineffective amid Russia’s enduring support for Lukashenko.

Expanding government repression

In recent months, the Belarusian government has intensified its targeting of critics, and expanded the crackdown beyond its borders.

In May 2021, Lukashenko forced a passenger Ryanair flight to land minutes before it entered Lithuanian airspace to arrest journalist and government critic Roman Protasevich. The incident drew international attention and led the EU to implement a new round of sanctions against Belarus, with the new measures also targeting the country’s important potash sector.

More recently, Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya claims she was forcibly taken to the airport to return to Belarus after reportedly criticising her coaches. She refused to fly back to Belarus over concerns for her safety and has since been granted a humanitarian visa in Poland. However, it remains uncertain whether the athlete will ultimately be safe in Poland – though, given that she is technically not a political dissident, the risk of her being targeted is likely to be moderately smaller.

In Kyiv, Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov, who ran an organisation in Ukraine aimed at helping Belarusians fleeing persecution, was found dead August 3 in a suspected murder.

These are just the latest in the series of other repressive acts by the Lukashenko regime over the summer. These included arrests of journalists, forced closures of NGOs, imprisonment of student protesters and branding of international television channels as “extremist”.

These two incidents in Ukraine and Tokyo indicate that the Lukashenko regime is increasingly likely and willing to target dissidents -– even on foreign soil -– regardless of international scrutiny.

Reliance on Russia

Despite international outcry, sanctions appear to have had little meaningful impact and have failed to deter Lukashenko from pursuing an increasingly repressive path. In response to the latest round of sanctions, Lukashenko retaliated by openly admitting to sponsoring illegal migration into the EU through Lithuania, adding severe pressure on border security mechanisms and increasing regional tensions with Europe.

The uptick in repression also comes against the backdrop of increasing political tensions. Lukashenko’s political rival Tsikhanouskaya recent travelled to the US to ask Washington to support the pro-democratic movement in Belarus and a rerun of the presidential election. Although Biden expressed his support, the meeting between the two lasted only 15 minutes with no concrete plans for possible action from Washington announced at this stage.

In contrast, Lukashenko made an unscheduled trip to St Petersburg to meet with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, further underlining that Lukashenko is highly reliant on Moscow for survival amid a virtually complete isolation from the West.

Indeed, Russia’s support remains an important factor in Minsk’s ongoing and expanding offensive against dissent. Having been virtually cut off from the west, Minsk is more reliant than ever on Russia for financial assistance. For example, the country’s economy continues to rely on subsidised Russian oil and gas, with a US$1.5 billion (£1.08 billion) loan promised by Russia following the outbreak of protests also an important factor contributing to Lukashenko’s ability to cling to power.

Moscow’s increasing presence in Belarus has extended beyond the economic realm. The two countries have reportedly conducted a record number of military exercises so far this year, ahead of the Zapad military exercises due to run at training sites in Belarus and Russia in September. These exercises take place every four years to test the mobility and readiness of troops and are defensive in nature.

The increasing presence of Russian troops and military equipment in Belarus will ensure that wider regional tensions remain heightened over the coming weeks. The drills will take place just months after concerns over a mass buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border sparked fears of a possible military escalation.

The exercises also come amid heightened tensions between the west and Russia over Russia’s own persecution of political opposition and crackdown on western tech giants ahead of the State Duma elections in September.

To that end, given the growing presence of the Russian and Belarusian regimes’ increasingly aggressive approach to silencing perceived critics in order to survive, it remains highly unlikely that human rights indicators will improve in Belarus in the short term.

Attacks on independent media, foreign NGOs and perceived regime critics are likely to persist ahead of the election anniversary and beyond.

Liana Semchuk does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.