VILNIUS – A few weeks ago, Aliaksandra Herasimenia was a retired Belarusian Olympic swimmer with a stellar career.
Now, from her self-imposed exile in neighbouring Lithuania, she heads up a new foundation to help a growing list of Belarusian athletes who have fallen foul of the country’s authoritarian government.
“We provide some financial support and look for training facilities,” Herasimenia told AFP in an interview in an office used by Belarusian pro-democracy activists in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
On the walls around her are images of the street protests that have shaken the former Soviet republic since a disputed presidential election in August.
With less than a year to go before the Tokyo Olympics, athletes who have spoken out against President Alexander Lukashenko have been kicked out of the national team, some even arrested for joining protests.
Herasimenia estimates that 10 athletes have been arrested and more than 20 banned from training in Belarus and so need assistance from her fund.
– ‘Your results or your voice?’ –
The 34-year-old, who won medals in the London and Rio Olympics, is well aware of the dilemma that Belarusian athletes face: if they speak out against the crackdown, they risk giving up their Olympic dream.
“It is very difficult because the Olympic games is the main competition for a sportsman, and you have to make a choice,” she said.
“What is more important? Your results or your voice?”
Some athletes have come out in support of the government, causing rifts within a tight-knit community.
Herasimenia wants the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to suspend Belarus, whose committee is headed up by Lukashenko himself.
She hopes that Belarusian athletes would be allowed to compete under the IOC flag.
The swimmer, who retired last year after giving birth to a daughter, runs a children’s swimming club in Belarus.
Herasimenia, whose husband Yauhen Tsurkin is also a champion swimmer, moved to Lithuania earlier this month after several leading sports figures were arrested in Belarus for taking part in protests.
“We understood that we needed a representative at the international level, and someone had to meet and represent the foundation in person.
“Here in Vilnius I can do more than staying at home.”
Herasimenia said Lithuania had offered facilities for Belarusian athletes to train and she asked for other countries to show similar solidarity.
– Depends on ‘the manager’ –
Lithuania has become a refuge for opposition supporters.
An interior ministry spokeswoman said the EU and NATO member has accepted 119 Belarusian activists on “humanitarian grounds” so far.
Among them is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the candidate who ran against Lukashenko in the election and claimed victory, accusing him of rigging the result.
Joining ranks in Vilnius, Herasimenia and Tikhanovskaya are also campaigning for the 2021 World Ice Hockey Championship to be moved from Minsk to punish Lukashenko, a keen hockey player, if he clings to power.
The International Ice Hockey Federation has so far said it is not looking for a new host for the tournament scheduled for May and June in Belarus and Latvia.
For Herasimenia, what happens next in Belarus largely depends on Lukashenko “and what strategy he will take.
“I believe that truth and honesty will win,” she said.