Alexander Lukashenko has largely squeezed the life out of the protest movement that threatened his despotic hold on power last summer. As he has done so, a vicious, totalitarian mood has come to dominate all corners of life in Belarus. Earlier this month, there was a sweeping crackdown on NGOs, many of which were previously judged non-political. Independent media organisations have been harassed and shut down. The essential illegitimacy of Mr Lukashenko’s regime was exposed in the aftermath of the stolen elections of 2020. Its survival is now ensured by the brutal crushing of dissent wherever it is found.

Even at the Tokyo Olympics. The decision on Sunday by the Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to seek asylum in Poland followed what was ostensibly a sporting dispute. Ms Tsimanouskaya had publicly criticised the Belarus team’s coaches for failing to conduct the necessary doping tests ahead of the women’s 4x400m race. When she refused to be sent home in disgrace, a leaked tape revealed that a member of the Belarus delegation had told her: “Let this situation go. Otherwise the more that you struggle, it will be like a fly caught in a spider’s web: the more it spins, the more it gets entangled.” If the chilling menace contained in these words seems disproportionate, the tone probably comes from the top: the head of the Belarus National Olympic Committee is Mr Lukashenko’s son Viktor.

Ms Tsimanouskaya is under police protection in Tokyo. Her husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, has fled the Belarusian capital, Minsk, for Kiev. When making what seems to have been a snap decision on Sunday night, the sprinter doubtless recalled the fate of the Belarusian athletes who have been detained for taking part in protests against Mr Lukashenko. Numerous others, deemed suspect, have been dropped from teams. Sport, like other aspects of Belarusian life, is now run in the paranoid style.

The 24-year-old Ms Tsimanouskaya, who on Monday received a humanitarian visa from Poland, will clearly be a sporting loss for her country. She will also become part of an era-defining exodus from Mr Lukashenko’s Belarus that makes it hard to be optimistic about the future. As the regime has consolidated its grip over the past year through mass arrests, torture and a crackdown across civil society, huge numbers of younger Belarusians have sought refuge in neighbouring Lithuania, Ukraine and Poland. The formerly booming tech sector in Minsk – an organisational hub for the protests – has been particularly badly hit. As many as 15,000 IT workers may have fled the country. Giving up, for now, on the prospect of democratic reform, many other young professionals have taken the same decision. As European and US sanctions continue to be ineffective, and Vladimir Putin stands ready to offer assistance to the regime as required, who can blame them?

Mr Lukashenko, of course, will not be sorry to wave goodbye as he recreates Belarusian society in the oppressive image of a Soviet satellite state. For the remaining remnants of the protest movement, Ms Tsimanouskaya’s decision to join those seeking asylum is yet another sign of how dark the times have become, following those days of hope last summer and autumn.

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