Simon Denyer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Former bureau chief with The Washington Post and Reuters.

Aug 4, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
1 min read

MOSCOW — Belarusian Olympic runner Krystsina Tsimanouskaya arrived Wednesday in Poland to seek asylum after refusing to return to her homeland amid fears of reprisals from the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko as it wages sweeping crackdowns on dissent.

Tsimanouskaya, who runs the 100- and 200-meter races, had criticized Belarusian Olympic officials in an Instagram video from the Tokyo Games after they tried to force her to run in a relay that she had not trained for. She said those comments led to an attempt to forcibly send her home Sunday.

The 24-year-old asked Japanese police for protection at Haneda Airport in Tokyo and pleaded for help from the International Olympic Committee. Poland and the Czech Republic both offered her asylum.

“I want to thank all Polish consular and diplomatic staff involved, who flawlessly planned and secured her safe journey,” said Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Marcin Przydacz. “Poland continues to show its solidarity and support.”

Tsimanouskaya initially landed in Vienna before boarding a flight to Warsaw, according to Austria’s Foreign Ministry. In Warsaw, Tsimanouskaya was to be reunited with her husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, who fled Belarus.

“The top priority for us is that Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is safe now. That is the bottom line,” Austrian Foreign Minster Alexander Schallenberg said in a statement.

Belarusian security forces have arrested dozens of activists and journalists in recent weeks, part of continuing crackdowns since mass protests over the August 2020 presidential election, which was rejected by the opposition as rigged in favor of Lukashenko.

Leading opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova, who led peaceful protests last year calling on Lukashenko to step down, faced a closed trial Wednesday with opposition colleague Maxim Znak over claims they tried to seize power. Kolesnikova appeared in court smiling and wearing a black dress, making her trademark heart signal with both hands.

Kolesnikova and Znak were members of a coordinating council set up by exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to try to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power. Several more opposition figures were arrested Wednesday, according to the rights group Viasna.

After Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov was found dead in a park in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky instructed security services to examine any security threats faced by Belarusian exiles in Ukraine, pledging to ensure their protection. Ukrainian police were investigating whether Shishov’s hanging was a murder staged to look like suicide, but few details of the probe have been disclosed.

Tsimanouskaya received a humanitarian visa from Poland on Monday and had been in the care of the Polish Embassy in Tokyo since then. She had been expected to be on a direct flight to Warsaw on Wednesday but boarded a flight to Vienna at the last minute.

Alexander Opeikin, executive director of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation, a group that opposes the Belarusian government, said Poland’s embassy decided to change the plan for “security reasons.”

Belarus said Tsimanouskaya was removed from the national team because of her emotional state, but she told the BBC she did not suffer from any mental health issues and had not had any conversations with physicians at the Olympic Village.

She told the BBC she was surprised to be told she had to leave because she “didn’t say anything political.” She would like to return to Belarus “when I know that it’s safe,” she said. “Maybe I’ll only be able to return after five or 10 years.”

The IOC launched a formal investigation into the case Tuesday. Spokesman Mark Adams said it has received a written response from the Belarus Olympic Committee, “which will obviously now be evaluated.”

Adams said the IOC opened a disciplinary commission “to establish the facts in this case” and to question two Belarusian Olympic officials — Artur Shumak, deputy director of the national track-and-field training center, and Yuri Moisevich, the national team’s head coach — “who have been allegedly involved in this incident.”

European Union airlines have been banned from flying over Belarus since May, when Lukashenko sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to force a civilian plane to land as it was flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania. Belarusian authorities then arrested one of its passengers, Roman Protasevich, the founder of an opposition media outlet.

After Tsimanouskaya refused to fly back to Belarus on Sunday out of fear for her safety, Zdanevich, her husband, fled to Ukraine. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter that the country is “ready to provide necessary help during his stay in Ukraine and make him feel safe despite shocking news.”

The Belarus Olympic Committee is run by Lukashenko’s eldest son, Viktor Lukashenko. The IOC has refused to recognize Viktor Lukashenko’s election to the post.

No mention of Tsimanouskaya’s flight was made on Belarusian official media, which instead focused on the return of Belarusian Olympic high jumper and bronze medalist Maxim Nedosekov to Minsk on Wednesday.