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Belarus is bringing back the Cold War

Belarussian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya. Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya’s defection is “straight out of the Cold War playbook”, says Mary Dejevsky in The Independent. The Belarussian Olympian, 24, has been given a visa by Poland – she says her team tried to force her to return home after a dispute over which races she would run in Tokyo. In the Soviet era, pretty much any international tour, sporting or cultural, could bring “a predictable crop of defections” to the West. Ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s efforts to escape his KGB minders at a Parisian airport in 1961 “entailed physical violence and a summit-level international stand-off”. These days it’s mainly Cuban baseball players who want to stay in the US.

Tsimanouskaya’s move looks more spontaneous – the result of a professional spat that turned political. And it shows how much of an “outlier” Belarus now is. The idea that Poland would offer a defector refuge would have been “unthinkable” when both two nations were members of the Eastern Bloc. It’s not just Poland: Lithuania and Ukraine have become “places of safety” for many Belarussian activists. The opposition leader at last year’s elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is living in exile in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Last year’s protests against President Lukashenko may have lost steam, but “what has happened in Tokyo suggests that this is not the end of the story”.

Why it matters Hours after Tsimanouskaya took refuge in the Polish embassy in Tokyo, Belarussian activist Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in a park in Kiev, Ukraine. His death is being investigated as a potential murder, says the FT – and, if it was a “political hit”, it highlights just how far Belarus is prepared to go to silence dissenters.