What is happening in Belarus? What is the political situation and will the world step in to help?

A protestor against Belarus' president Alexander Lukashenko. Credit: AP

Belarus, a country that forms a buffer between Russia and Europe, has been in the international spotlight this week after a Belarusian Olympic athlete sparked a diplomatic incident when she refused to return to her homeland after the Games saying her life was in danger.

Meanwhile, a murder investigation was launched after an activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found dead in Kyiv.

The events shine a light on a situation that has been brewing for months, if not years, as 'Europe's last dictator' tightens his grip on a country on the brink.

Where is Belarus?

Officially the Republic of Belarus, this landlocked country in Eastern Europe is bordered by Russia to the east and northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Until it became independent in 1991, Belarus, formerly known as Belorussia or White Russia, was part of the Soviet Union.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya Credit: AP

What's the political situation there?

Longtime leader of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is often referred to as Europe's last dictator. Mr Lukashenko, who was elected to power in 1994, won re-election for a sixth time in 2020 with 80% of the vote, in a ballot deemed “neither free nor fair” by the European Union.

The “fraudulent elections” sparked mass protest that prompted a sweeping crackdown from Mr Lukashenko's government. More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands beaten by police while Belarusian authorities have ramped up raids and arrests of independent journalists and civil society activists in recent weeks.

Riot police detain a protester during an opposition rally over Alexander Lukashenko. Credit: TUT.by/AP

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main election challenger, was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure after the election.

Last month, Mr Lukashenko promised to bring to justice 1,500 NGOs and journalists he alleged were “funded from abroad.” He claimed during a visit to Russia that Western-funded organisations were fomenting unrest and denounced their alleged actions. Just this week, a court in Belarus convicted a journalist, Siarhei Hardziyevich, 50, of insulting the president in messages in a deleted chat group and sentenced him to one and a half years in prison

Mr Lukashenko has vowed to continue what he called a “mopping-up operation” against civil society activists whom he has denounced as “bandits and foreign agents.”

Alexander Lukashenko has brutally cracked down on any opposition to his power. Credit: PA

What's been happening?

Belarus’ authoritarian government has relentlessly targeted anyone even mildly expressing dissent since a presidential election a year ago triggered a wave of unprecedented mass protests. And it has also gone to extremes to stop its critics, including recently diverting a Ryanair plane to the capital of Minsk and arresting dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.

The situation was brought to the world's attention again on Tuesday when a Belarusian activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found dead in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Belarus police detaining journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk during a protest in 2017. Credit: AP

Vitaly Shishov, leader of the Kyiv-based Belarusian House in Ukraine, was found hanged in one of the city’s parks not far from his home, police said in a statement. A murder probe has been launched, with police investigating that the killing was made to look like suicide.

It comes after Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya sought refuge in Europe after accusing team officials of trying to force her to leave the Tokyo Games early.

She said officials from her country “made it clear” she would face punishment if she returned home after she critisised Belarus Olympic officials on Instagram.

Ms Tsimanouskaya summoned Japanese police at Haneda Airport and did not board a flight departing for Istanbul saying she feared she was being deported to Belarus.

Belarusian women carry flowers in solidarity with those injured in the rallies against the results of the country’s presidential election. Credit: Sergei Grits/AP

How is the world reacting?

Boris Johnson welcomed Belarusian opposition leader Ms Tsikhanouskaya to Downing Street on Tuesday and told her UK is “on her side”.

Pro-democracy demonstrators gathered at the Foreign Office to support the visit of Ms Tsikhanouskaya.

Alan Flowers, chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society said: “Belarusian organisations in the UK view her as the rightful representative of the Belarus people. In this respect, we separate the Belarus people from the Belarus state.”

The opposition leader was asked by reporters outside Downing Street if she thought concrete help would be offered by the UK Government.

“I am sure,” she replied.

She said it was too early to comment on the death of a Belarusian activist in Ukraine.