For numerous bitter days in early August, Belarus went dark. After the rigged presidential re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, tens of thousands of civilians took to the streets in peaceful protest, where they were met by state-sanctioned violence as the government killed the internet. Haunting stories continue to emerge of beatings directed by the government.
As unrest endures at home, it has coincided with unprecedented sporting success abroad. At the US Open, five Belarusians reached the second round and the former women’s world No 1 Victoria Azarenka defeated the No 5 seed, Aryna Sabalenka, in a grand Belarusian derby.
Their success has forced them to answer political questions, and yielded a variety of answers. While one player refused to discuss the topic, the 21-year-old Vera Lapko protested in Minsk. “It’s not normal when police hit people,” she said. Azarenka, perhaps the most prominent Belarusian athlete, called the situation “heartbreaking” but she kept her opinions to herself, “I don’t want to be put-on and my words be taken to anybody’s agenda, so I’m going to do what I feel like doing without media.”
Some athletes have been more vocal. Last week, more than 400 sporting figures signed an open letter declaring the election invalid. During the shutdown, the former rhythmic gymnast Melitina Staniouta’s Instagram feed became an essential chronicle, documenting riot police battering peaceful civilians, security forces dragging men across the streets and women’s faces caked in blood. She feels she must spread the truth.
“Maybe if I didn’t care about my country, I’m just gonna close my eyes and try not to hear anything,” Staniouta says in a phone interview. “But I can’t. I can’t and I won’t. Belarus is a tiny country, not in the European Union, and no one cares. I have travelled a lot and I can’t say that lots of people know it. When I say I’m from Belarus, they say: ‘Oh, that’s Russia.’ I say: ‘No, it’s Belarus.’ That’s why I was thinking I must do it. I must share this violence, these horrible videos and what is happening in the 21st century in the very centre of Europe.”
Violence from the state has reinforced the necessity of action. Four weeks since the election, marches continue. “We are angry,” she says. “Lots of us in every family now have someone who was over there in protests or who was just looking by or sitting on a bench somewhere with his girlfriend or going out occasionally to the shop, and then appeared in a prison truck.” A good friend of Staniouta attended a protest and woke up in hospital battered, barely able to move, with police staring back. “He was afraid and says: ‘They probably want to show me as a leader of these protests.’”
Staniouta speaks bluntly and she does not hesitate to convey her incredulity towards the dangerous figure at the heart of the unrest. “When the president said on the state TV channels that all those people who want freedom, clear elections, are prostitutes, sheep, alcoholics – oh my god, why?” she says. “How can we love, how can we be open-hearted … if he is clearly abusing people?”
She has never known a world without Lukashenko. He became president in July 1994 when Staniouta was eight months old. Until she retired in 2016, the 26-year-old’s life was a “cage of our goals and medals and world championships”. She departed as one of the best gymnasts of her generation, with 14 world championship medals and fifth place at the Rio Olympics. She did not have time to think about politics.
It was during the 2010 election that she began to question her surroundings. One day a friend returned home traumatised after a peaceful protest. “She was super-scared. She needed lots of time to come back to her normal life after what she saw and the bruises on her shoulder blades and her back. Maybe that was the first step to: ‘What is he doing?’”
Two months ago Staniouta felt the direct consequences of state repression. In June, police arrived at the doors of Symbal.by in Minsk, a souvenir store that sells satirical products mocking Lukashenko’s popularity, and arrested about 20 people stood in a queue. Staniouta registered her outrage on Instagram. “Where did the laws that protect us go?” she wrote. Her weekly fitness show for the state broadcaster ONT was immediately suspended and she was fired.
“I just could not keep quiet. My words were just about the law and that we are living in a democratic country. If we don’t break the law, we are under protections. Yet if you were standing in a line in a shop, you can be taken in a prison truck.”
Before a trip abroad just before the election, Staniouta attended a rally for Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, who she describes as a “super-strong woman”. She knows she could also be at risk and Staniouta still has not returned home. “That’s my fear – that I come back and they’ll say: ‘Hey, she used the internet for her international audience and maybe she’s a leader.’ That can probably be, or they can put some drugs in my luggage.”
In the end, the only question Staniouta cannot quite answer is about the silence of some colleagues. “I got so many direct messages saying: ‘Thank you for your words, thank you for your position, but why does the gymnastics world keep quiet?’ I don’t know. Maybe there is some pressure, but for those guys [striking] in factories, there is pressure too. Maybe much more pressure.”