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The Belarusian Diaspora Is Terrified as Lukashenko’s Killings Spiral

The death of Vitaly Shishov shows Minsk is willing to strike beyond its own borders.

A picture of the Belarusian exile Vitaly Shishov is held by an activist
A picture of the Belarusian exile Vitaly Shishov is held by an activist as he takes part in a rally outside the Belarus Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Aug. 3. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

People used to disappear quietly.

Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko has been torturing, jailing, and killing people for a very long time. What’s changed, members of the diaspora say, is that it’s happening on an unprecedented scale now—and taking place beyond the borders of Belarus.

Shortly after a Belarusian Olympic athlete was nearly kidnapped from Tokyo after criticizing Belarusian officials, a prominent member of the Belarusian diaspora, Vitaly Shishov, was found hanged in Kyiv, Ukraine. Local police have opened a murder case.

People used to disappear quietly.

Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko has been torturing, jailing, and killing people for a very long time. What’s changed, members of the diaspora say, is that it’s happening on an unprecedented scale now—and taking place beyond the borders of Belarus.

Shortly after a Belarusian Olympic athlete was nearly kidnapped from Tokyo after criticizing Belarusian officials, a prominent member of the Belarusian diaspora, Vitaly Shishov, was found hanged in Kyiv, Ukraine. Local police have opened a murder case.

Belarusian state TV personalities regularly rant about how “traitors” should be hanged. And the Russian security services—long known to be active in Ukraine—are infiltrating the Belarusian diaspora.

The message is clear. Minsk wants people to be afraid—and not just in neighboring Kyiv or, for that matter, in Tokyo.

The message being received by members of the Belarusian diaspora in the United States is that it doesn’t matter where they are—the state can find them. Not a single one of them whom I contacted wanted to go on the record about how these messages are spreading. What I do know is that people have been hastily deleting their social media profiles. A few have switched to using P.O. boxes for mail in the hope that it will keep them safe. Others are no longer using their obviously Belarusian last names online.

Lukashenko has always behaved murderously. Consider this surreal documentary about Lukashenko’s unbridled lust for power—originally shot in 1996.

A number of people involved with the film were “disappeared” themselves. It was widely rumored that the head of a crematorium at a local cemetery spoke to others about being forced to dispose of Col. Yury Zacharanka, who spoke to the makers of the documentary. Of course, nobody could confirm the man’s statement—as he himself quickly died a violent death.

In 2020, Zacharanka’s daughter, who lives in Germany today, met with one of the men who claims to have executed her father. “Your father, we shot him in the back, as we did to [other political opponents of Lukashenko],” he said in front of the cameras. He denied torturing the man before his death. He said he was a young man who was just following orders but that guilt continues to torment him. There are plenty of people who refuse to believe his story. Zacharanka’s daughter said she trusts him, though, considering some of the details about her father that he knew.

It is strange to consider that for many years, Lukashenko was treated not as a murderous thug but a comical figure. Here he is feeding a large carrot to the actor Steven Seagal, who’s acting like an oversized version of Bugs Bunny for the cameras—how can one not laugh?

Lukashenko is very smart, you see. Long ago, he correctly understood that his folksy appeal, a kind of salt of the earth, aw-shucks attitude, would help cover a multitude of sins. It worked, of course. Neither Lukashenko himself nor the horrific brutality with which he treated his critics was truly taken seriously in Washington and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the man often portrayed as a bumbling figure is attempting to build a dynastic legacy.

Consider Lukashenko’s youngest and favorite son, Nikolai—otherwise known as Kolya or Kolenka. Lukashenko has long been grooming Nikolai to be his successor—the kid met the Obamas when he was just 11 years old. There is no official information on Nikolai’s mother, though journalists say that she is likely a woman named Irina Abelskaya—not Lukashenko’s actual wife, whom he’s been married to since 1975, who bore him two older sons, and who does not appear in public.

A young man today, Nikolai recently accompanied his father to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a move widely seen as meant to cement the 16-year-old’s eventual succession, or at least to guarantee his safety. Sources out of Belarus, who naturally refuse to go on the record, claim that not all is well with Lukashenko’s health. That may be one reason he’s seeking increasingly harsh—and risky—vengeance against critics.

What began the latest spiral was a rigged 2020 election, in which his opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, appeared to have won nevertheless. The protests that erupted after Lukashenko claimed victory nonetheless—while Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country—enraged the dictator.

Since then, Belarus has been in freefall, with tortures and kidnappings and other forms of brutal crackdowns becoming routine. Western powers have botched the response to what is happening—sanctions do not move the dictator in Minsk. What might perhaps move him is letting his citizens, who are all his hostages now, freely escape to the European Union. But that demands the kind of iron political will that most leaders simply do not appear to have.

Nevertheless, Lukashenko is not going to stop by himself. Belarus is a true rogue state, its inner repressions spiraling outward alongside Putin’s tacit approval. Belarusian dissidents are not safe in Ukraine. They are not safe in Tokyo. They are likely not safe in the Baltics.

Considering Lukashenko loves spectacle—and clearly wants revenge for being ostracized by the Western community—dissidents in Western Europe and, perhaps, even the United States should also brace themselves. Democratic governments, meanwhile, might want to begin to get realistic about the threat from Europe’s rogue state.

Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington D.C.

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