Alexander Opeikin led one of the most successful handball clubs in ex-Soviet Belarus.
These days, he is a fugitive wanted for “harming national security”, living in exile in Ukraine.
In 2012, he founded the Vityaz club in the nation of 9.5 million people, whose President Alexander Lukashenko champions sports as an ideological pillar of his decades-long rule.
Since assuming office in 1994, he has handed athletes government awards, keys to cars and apartments, and thousands of dollars in cash for their victories at international championships and Olympic medals.
“He tried to make athletes loyal to him and translate this loyalty further to their audience,” Opeikin, 35, told Al Jazeera.
Lukashenko’s tenure as head of the Belarusian Olympic Committee (NOC) was only slightly shorter than his ongoing presidency – he terminated it last November after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) barred him from attending the Tokyo Games.
Now, the NOC is headed by Lukashenko’s eldest son, Viktor, who was also banned from attending.
The ban followed Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on mass anti-government protests which gripped Belarus following his victory in a disputed August 9, 2020 vote.
The poll handed the 66-year-old a sixth presidential term, but his political opponents and some poll workers claimed that his landslide victory was rigged.
Opeikin’s handball club stopped training in protest and was removed from the national championship.
He and its members took part in the recent rallies and were among more than 1,000 athletes who signed a petition urging Lukashenko to stop the crackdown.
Lukashenko considered it “treason”.
“He got so scared of protesting sportsmen because he knows very well that renowned athletes strongly influence public opinion,” said Opeikin, who fled to neighbouring Ukraine after being charged with “harming the national security” and “disseminating deliberately false information” in April.
“Lukashenko considers them all traitors,” he added.
These days, Opeikin heads the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, a group based in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, that helps athletes in trouble or exile.
At least 95 of those who signed the petition faced detention after participating in the protests, seven face criminal charges they believe are politically motivated, and another 124 suffered other forms of abuse, according to the Ukrainian branch of global human rights group Amnesty International.
“Belarusian athletes have paid a high price for daring to speak out and it’s clear that sport is now a battleground for reprisals in Belarus,” Amnesty’s researcher Heather McGill said in a statement last week.
No more games
But the plight of Belarusian athletes only gained international attention earlier this month, when Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused her team’s orders to travel home early from the Tokyo Games.
The 24-year-old said she feared for her safety in Belarus.
Even after Poland granted her a humanitarian visa, concerns over her security forced her to switch planes at the last minute and fly to Warsaw via Vienna.
Those concerns were fuelled by an incident in May which saw Lukashenko dispatch a military jet to force a Lithuania-bound passenger plane flying over Belarus to land in Minsk, after which police arrested on-board opposition journalist Roman Protasevich for his alleged involvement in “extremism”.
Protasevich, who faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted, appeared in a “confession” video that supporters said was recorded under duress.
Then another Belarusian Olympian decided to defect.
On August 3, decathlete Andreu Krauchanka, who won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and holds the Belarusian national record for the event, decided to stay in Germany with his wife, heptathlete Yana Maksimava, she wrote on Instagram.
“One can lose not only freedom, but life there,” she wrote under a photo of herself and her small son.
“It is possible to breathe freely here and be one of those who fights for the liberty of their people, relatives, and loved ones; we will prevail for sure,” she added.
The couple made their decision hours after 26-year-old Belarusian opposition figure Vital Shyshou was found hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv.
Ukrainian police said there were traces of beating on his body, and his friends claim he was assassinated by Belarusian security agents.
For his part, Lukashenko has denied that Belarus had any part in Shyshou’s death and has said he believes Tsimanouskaya was “manipulated” into her decision by “outside forces”.
Rule of law ‘meltdown’
Since it gained independence in 1991, none of the elections in Belarus has been deemed free and fair by international observers, and each one has gone hand in hand with a violent squashing of dissent.
But last year’s rallies – and Lukashenko’s response – were unprecedented in scope.
They drew up to 200,000 people and lasted for weeks, paralysing urban centres and prompting strikes among workers in state-run factories, Lukashenko’s core supporters.
Some 30,000 protesters were arrested, rights groups said, and thousands were allegedly beaten.
Seven people were shot during the protests or died shortly after them, according to independent media reports.
“What we have seen in the time since [the election], is a complete meltdown of the rule of law in the country, and the beginning of the end for the Lukashenko regime,” Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a rights watchdog, told Al Jazeera.
But the protesters did not have a charismatic and determined leader.
Presidential hopeful and political first-timer Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who came second in last year’s poll with 10 percent of the vote, fled to neighbouring Lithuania, and older, more seasoned opposition figures did not dare to return to Belarus from exile.
Despite being sanctioned by the West over its response to last year’s protests and cornered politically, Lukashenko’s Belarus still keeps its head above water economically.
Last year, many experts predicted an economic crisis, but the post-pandemic economic boom saw prices for Belarus’s main exports – potassium fertiliser, petrol and foodstuffs – skyrocket.
Belarus has Soviet-era chemical plants and two giant oil processing plants that work on discounted Russian crude.
Its booming IT sector, which has enjoyed tax breaks and other perks, also thrives even though many companies and programmers fled the country amid the crackdown.
However, 2022 may be much more detrimental, experts warn.
“Next year, a prolonged recession in the Belarusian economy may start, [coupled with] a stagflation if the inflation factor is added,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
He also said Russia has decreased its subsidies to Minsk from 5 percent of the Belarusian gross domestic product (GDP) to about 2 percent.
For decades, Belarus has been dependent on Russia’s multibillion- loans and sent most of its exports to its giant eastern neighbour, where hundreds of thousands of Belarusians work in the construction and agriculture sectors.