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Activism in exile: Belarusian olympic medalist speaks out

February 11, 2023
topics: Democracy
by: Robert Bociaga
located in: Belarus
tags: Belarus, democracy, Russia, Ukraine
Persecuted and imprisoned at home, Belarusian activists continue the fight for democracy from abroad.

Following the contentious reelection of Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko in August 2020, which both his opposition and the West deemed a fraud, the country was rocked by mass protests. In the aftermath of the demonstrations, Lukashenko's regime had launched a nationwide repression campaign that resulted in more than 35,000 arrests and countless instances of police brutality.

Financially devastating sanctions by the West were quick to follow.

Aliaksandra Herasimenia (37), a 2012 World Champion in swimming and 2012 Olympic silver medalist, became a fierce critic of Lukashenko and was one of the top athletes to leave Belarus during the crackdown on protesters in August 2020. 

During the 2020 demonstrations, Herasimenia was in charge of youth and sports at the National Anti-crisis Management, a shadow administration established by the Belarusian Coordination Council to ensure a smooth transition of power following the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. 

In the meantime, she was forced to flee the country and took refuge in neighbouring Poland.

At the end of December 2022, she was found guilty by a court in Minsk of advocating for sanctions and sentenced in absentia to a 12-year jail term

Herasimenia spoke to FairPlanet about the situation in Belarus, her continued activism in exile and the meaning of freedom.

FairPlanet: How did you react to the news of the recent court verdict in your case? 

Aliaksandra Herasimenia: In fact, almost no reaction. It was quite expected, and actually I understood that everything was leading to that.

They took away my property, my swimming club, my apartment, my money, but they didn’t take me and my freedom - and this is the most important thing. So I don’t regret it at all.

Now, they want to deprive me of citizenship. I am in Warsaw and I give swimming lessons on a private basis. That's what I love doing after retiring from my swimming career. 

You've continued to advocate for a free Belarus while in Poland. How are you doing this exactly? 

I put in touch refugees from Ukraine and Belarus with local businesses, and make plans for projects to build a civil society in Belarus.

We have been working with all the international sports organisations, plus, of course, addressed letters and met personally in order to involve the public. 

In order to build a new Belarus it is necessary to change people's consciousness, because the problem is not with Lukashenko, the problem is with the system and the practice.

People are used to having a vertical system of power where they obey someone - so that someone else solves their problems. Now many Belarusians are beginning to realise that we can change our country only when we ourselves have changed, and certainly this can will be very painful for many. 

Activists forced to flee

Are you still in contact with activists in your country, or is it too risky?

In fact, everyone who was active during the 2020 protests left the country - if they were not imprisoned of course - so there is no need to communicate with anyone in Belarus except for some relatives.

Despite the passage of time, repression continues. Those who did not vote for Lukashenko, as well as activists of 2020, have been forced to leave. Even in 2023, they jail people for participating in protests of 2020.

Activism is important everywhere, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Belarus or abroad. In Belarus it’s almost impossible to be active now, and the only thing that remains is to act abroad and demand the release of political prisoners and the recognition of Lukashenko’s regime as terrorist. 

What do you think the future holds for the Lukashenko regime?

The Lukashenko regime has no future. What future are we talking about when he has already completely brought the country to the bottom?

I don’t know how much time is left for him, but every day his term is shortening - although I do not know when it will end. I am afraid it will end very badly for Lukashenko himself and his cronies. 

Can you take us through your decision to flee Belarus and how that journey unfolded?

At that time, I probably felt relief because remaining in Belarus was almost impossible. This constant tension to be on guard all the time, and to think that you can be pushed into the police car at any time.

But certainly, the most important was the fear that I could never see my child again.

As for the moment of fleeing, it was my own decision. I don't know if I was already under surveillance or if there were some operation prepared, but I understood that I could certainly be imprisoned like others - so I left.

I had a Polish visa, so it was easiest for me to come to Poland, which is very close to Belarus. 

I hope that soon we will be back, for me it is important. 

Can you talk a bit about your experience living in exile? 

The hardest thing is simply that we are not at home, and I miss this feeling of home although I am comfortable. The smell of nature [at home], the weather, there are many things.

At home I would solve my issues much easier, because I am a citizen and I know my rights. Here not being a citizen, I understand that this time I have much less opportunities, but for now this is the country where I take refuge. 

Finally, what does the freedom mean to you? 

Freedom is the highest degree of responsibility, and external freedom is manifested through internal freedom - such as free expression of our actions or the understanding that for all actions one needs to answer.

This is how I understand free will. The Russians lose because they come to a free land to free the people who are already free, and they are the slaves themselves.  

The interview was edited for clarity and concision. 

Picture by Jana Shnipelson.

Article written by:
Robert-Bociaga__cropWzAsMTMsNDU4LDQ1OF0_FillWzI4OSwyODld
Robert Bociaga
Author
Belarus
Lukashenko's regime had launched a nationwide repression campaign that resulted in more than 35,000 arrests and countless instances of police brutality.
Aliaksandra Herasimenia (37), a 2012 World Champion in swimming and 2012 Olympic silver medalist, became a fierce critic of Lukashenko and was one of the top athletes to leave Belarus during the crackdown on protesters in August 2020.
"They took away my property, my swimming club, my apartment, my money, but they didn’t take me and my freedom - and this is the most important thing."
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