Two Women Stare Down a Dictatorship in Belarus

A scandal at the Tokyo Olympics and a secret trial reveal the hard and fast choices made by those who run afoul of Lukashenka's regime

Last August, protests erupted in Belarus after its dictator, Alexander Lukashenka, held a rigged vote and had himself declared the winner. Lukashenka, an ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, has managed to hold on to power despite multiple rounds of sanctions from the European Union and the United States. Now, a year later, the country looks to be at an impasse. Lukashenka has crushed most of the opposition, leaving citizens who run afoul of the regime with a question -- to stay or to go?

Economic thinking can provide a conceptual framework for this dilemma. Economist Albert O. Hirschman in his 1970 book "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty," described consumers who face a deteriorating quality of goods. Individuals can "exit" and purchase goods at a competing firm, or "voice" and try to improve the quality of the goods. This same framework has been applied to people facing authoritarian regimes -- people can exit by emigrating, or try to agitate for change inside the country with voice.

Two incidents this week show sometimes how limited these choices can be — and how quickly they need to be made.

The 24-year-old sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya did not come to the 2021 Tokyo Olympic games intending to defect. She said that Belarusian sports officials enrolled her without her knowledge in the 4x400 relay race, which she hadn't trained for, in order to fill in for athletes who ran afoul of doping rules. Unlike Simone Biles, saying no was not really an option. She criticized her coaches publicly in a (now deleted) Instagram video. She was subsequently removed from the team before finishing her competition.

She was then threatened in a conversation with Belarusian sports officials. One official said to her, "You come home, you don’t write anything anywhere, and you don’t make any statements." He went on, "We want to help you, so this situation ends and goes away." Another said, "That's how suicide cases end up, unfortunately," in the course of telling an ominous anecdote about the Devil persuading someone to jump from a balcony.

She was driven to Tokyo's Haneda Airport. She said that at the airport, she used Google Translate to tell the Japanese police that she needed help. She refused to board a flight to Belarus. Escorted by police, she left on another flight for Vienna, and Poland granted her a humanitarian visa. "I just wanted to run," she wrote on Instagram, clarifying that she wasn't wanting to run away from anyone but wanting to run in the Olympics.

Later, she said her family feared that had she returned, she would have been sent to a psychiatric facility -- where critics were held against their will in the Soviet era. These fears were well-grounded -- Belarusian officials put out a statement saying that she had withdrawn because of purported physician advice on her "emotional, psychological state."

Another Belarusian has tried "voice" and has decided to stay in Belarus. Maria Kolesnikova is the only one of the "women's triumvirate" of opposition figures who still remains inside the country. (The other two are Svitlana Tshikvanovsakya, the candidate who declared victory over Lukashenka in 2020 and remains the leader of the opposition; and Veronika Tsepkalo, activist and wife of a banned candidate.)  Kolesnikova was the campaign manager for Victor Babariko, a candidate who was banned from running in the 2020 election and is now serving a 14-year prison sentence. Last year, Kolesnikova tore up her passport to evade an attempt to abduct her into Ukraine.

This week, along with a human rights lawyer, Maxim Znak, she is on trial for charges that remain unknown and the trial is behind closed doors, with no independent media allowed. She faces 12 years in prison. 

In front of the cameras in a prison cell, she danced:

She told Russian independent channel Dozhd TV this week, "I don’t regret a thing. I think that tearing up my passport was the right decision."

The exit and voice options for those living under totalitarian regimes isn't new. In 1982, in Communist Poland, the dissident Adam Michnik wrote a letter from prison entitled, "Why Are You Not Emigrating." He argued that the regime's offer for emigration would be divisive to the Solidarity movement. Ordinary people were not given the offer to emigrate. If Solidarity leaders took advantage of the offer to leave for the West, their followers would be resentful. He was sympathetic to both choices, but ultimately came down on the side of staying in prison. "If anything, I am making this choice out of fear. Out of the fear that by saving my neck I may lose my honor," he wrote.

In these two situations, it's doubtful how much choice either woman had. Tsimanouskaya did not come to the Olympics to be an activist and acted out of fears of being held captive and silenced. Kolesnikova faced forced abduction to Ukraine and opted to stay instead. Given the direction of democratic decline, many more activists, journalists, and citizens fleeing authoritarian regimes are going to have to make these kinds of choices.

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