- Belarusian authorities last month diverted a passenger flight in order to arrest a 26-year-old activist.
- The move shocked the international community, but experts said the step “falls within a certain pattern” for President Alexander Lukashenko.
- As the autocrat doubles down in the aftermath, experts say international attention and action are more important than ever.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The state-sanctioned diversion and detainment of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich last month sparked outrage and reproach around the globe. But experts say the drastic move is emblematic of a larger, more nefarious problem in Eastern Europe: the ongoing corruption and abuses by Belarus’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.
Often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, enacting his autocratic rule for nearly as long.
But in 2020, Belarus bore witness to a forceful wave of repression following a highly-contested August election, which prompted widespread protests throughout the country.
Protasevich’s detainment in May, though undeniably shocking, “falls within a certain pattern” for Lukashenko, who continues to pursue a renewed crackdown against any and all critics, according to Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division.
In the days since the hijacking, Lukashenko has doubled down – issuing a travel ban for most residents and releasing a suspect video of a detained Protasevich praising the leader and confessing to crimes.
Now, with all eyes on Belarus, experts say international action is more imperative than ever.
A state-sanctioned hijacking captivates the globe
On May 23, Belarusian authorities sent a fighter jet to divert a Ryanair plane flying from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, citing a bogus bomb threat. The passenger plane backtracked, landing in Minsk, where police officers boarded the jet and arrested Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian student.
Passengers on Ryanair Flight 4978 told media outlets that the plane was “just minutes” from its destination in Lithuania when the pilot announced the aircraft would make an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital, after previously flying through the country’s airspace.
In the aftermath of the abrupt diversion, passengers on the flight told reporters that Protasevich looked “shocked” and “scared” following the pilot’s announcement, even as the young activist instinctively began collecting his electronics to hand over to Sapega for safekeeping.
Ryanair’s CEO later said KGB agents had been aboard the flight from the start.
Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and a longtime colleague of Protasevich, told Insider he knows his friend was scared.
“He was always afraid of being captured by KGB, it was his nightmare,” Viačorka said.
The two men were together just before Protasevich’s detainment, attending an economic conference in Greece, where Protasevich and Sapega also enjoyed a brief vacation. Weeks earlier, Viačorka said he and Protasevich had discussed the possibility of his capture and made plans for digital and electronic security.
“But we neglected physical security,” Viačorka said. “This was something we did not predict.”
An ‘excessively paranoid’ leader casts aside legality to apprehend a longtime adversary
Belarusian state media has reported that it was Lukashenko, himself, who gave the “unequivocal order” to ground the plane in Minsk – an audacious act by a powerful man driven by the notion that his enemies are out to get him, according to Denber.
“I think it shows that he wanted to send a message that ‘we will find you no matter where you are,'” Denber said. “No one is safe.”
Viačorka likened Lukashenko’s brazen display of power to an “alpha man” wanting to prove to the world he is in control.
Lukashenko’s moves in the days since seem to confirm Viačorka’s characterization of the aging autocrat. On May 24, Belarusian authorities posted videos of both Protasevich and Sapega confessing to crimes against the country.
Opposition leaders and Protasevich’s own father said the videos were made under duress, and what appeared to be an injury on Protasevich’s face sparked concerns of torture.
Then, on Thursday, the young dissident appeared on Belarusian state TV confessing to organizing “mass unrest” and praising his one-time foe.
“I realized that many things [Lukashenko] is criticized for are just attempts to pressure him, and that in many moments he acted like…a man with balls of steel,” Protasevich says in the video.
Ten days after his arrest, the staunch Lukashenko opponent was suddenly praising the autocrat’s regime.
Protasevich, who began his activism at 16, had been detained several times before during his time freelancing for opposition news outlets before moving to Poland after he was forced out of university. As co-founder and editor-in-chief of NEXTA, an opposition Telegram channel, he focused much of his work on leaking videos and documents from the Lukashenko regime.
In 2019, he was drawn back to Belarus, eager to impact real change in Minsk. But Lukashenko’s authoritarian grasp was tightening on the country ahead of the 2020 elections, and anticipating impending danger, Protasevich fled to Warsaw for a second time.
Protasevich and his allies continued their journalism at NEXTA leading up to the presidential election, playing a vital informational role as Lukashenko’s regime shuttered independent media organizations inside the country.
But amid mass protests following the country’s highly contested 2020 election, Protasevich’s journalism evolved into political activism as he began organizing protests against the Belarusian government through NEXTA, which had become the most popular opposition platform in Belarus.
“We’re journalists, but we also have to do something else,” Protasevich told The New York Times in September. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.”
Belarus has suffered years of election-cycle repression under Lukashenko’s regime
For nearly three decades, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with a tight grip reminiscent of the country’s Soviet past. But he wasn’t always an oppositional figure.
“It’s important to remember that [Lukashenko] was quite popular when he was elected in 1994,” Denber said.
In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall, economic despair and widespread corruption reigned throughout the region, casting a tremendous uncertainty over Belarus. Lukashenko offered an appealing message and solution, Denber said. He wanted to stabilize the economy, fight corruption, and provide economic and national stability for the people.
“But his autocratic…intent to erode democratic freedom and to very brusquely cast aside human rights emerged very quickly,” Denber said.
By 1996, Lukashenko had already introduced constitutional reforms that strengthened his presidency to the detriment of other government branches and had begun going after his political opponents. By the end of the ’90s, Denber said several of Lukashenko’s political adversaries had disappeared, some presumed murdered.
Thus began a decades-long cycle of election-era repressions targeting independent journalists, human rights defenders, and political protesters. Several election cycles in the aughts sparked protests, Denber said, which in turn, would lead to fierce government crackdowns against civil society.
“There were a lot of pretty dark years,” she said.
After a particularly grim period from 2010 to 2012, Lukashenko’s repression eventually gave way to a slight “loosening up,” Denber said. By 2019, Belarus had released almost all of its political prisoners, and the European Union and the United States both dropped formerly-imposed sanctions against the country.
As the 2020 elections approached, Denber said the government promised a commitment to free and fair elections – it was the first time in years an opposition candidate would be allowed to run a real campaign.
But the August elections proved to be an inflection point of massive consequence for Protasevich, Lukashenko, and the future of Belarus.
A ‘highly contested’ election and a ‘catastrophic’ crackdown
As campaigning for the landmark election began, it was clear Lukashenko was far from ready to acquiesce power. Leading opposition candidates found themselves arrested, oftentimes on bogus charges, while other candidates were simply refused the opportunity to register.
Sergei Tikhanovsky, a well-known blogger faced both a refusal to register his nomination and a short prison sentence for organizing unauthorized protests. So, his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run in his place.
“She was able to campaign fairly unimpeded,” Denber said. “Nobody expected she would draw the crowd she drew.”
Her popularity grew among Belarusians in the spring and early summer. In June, Tikhanovskaya received an anonymous phone call threatening her children’s life unless she dropped out. She sent her children out of Belarus but stayed in the race.
On August 9, the Central Election Commission, which is controlled by Lukashenko’s government, announced that the incumbent president had won a sixth term, crediting him with 80% of the vote. Tikhanovskaya’s team objected, claiming to have won at least 60% in a first-round victory and calling on Lukashenko to begin negotiations.
“It’s hard to know what percentage of the vote she actually got, but clearly more than anyone expected,” Denber said.
Negotiations never came. Instead, the government arrested two members of her campaign’s Coordination Council and offered the others a false choice: Leave the country or else.
“We are dealing with a man who is getting…politically older,” Viačorka, Tikhanovskaya’s senior advisor said about Lukashenko. “Last year… he became anxious, nervous, and absolutely irrational.”
During the height of the election outcry in September, Protasevich left Poland to join Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania, cementing himself even further as Lukashenko’s enemy.
In Belarus, the disputed election set off a mass wave of unprecedented, mostly peaceful protests. Viačorka estimated the movement was one of the biggest progressive movements in Europe in the past 40 years.
But the civil demonstrations drew Lukashenko’s ire. The government dismantled what independent media was left, targeting and arresting journalists throughout the country; officials restricted internet access for hours in August as protests surged; and security forces detained thousands of people, subjecting hundreds to torture, Human Rights Watch reported at the end of 2020.
“There are so many people in prison right now,” Denber said in May. “Literally hundreds in jail connected to the protest movement.”
Viačorka believes thousands are still detained.
Experts hope last month’s aviation incident will spur international attention and action
Lukashenko’s post-elections crackdown stoked anger among ordinary Belarusians, making him even more unpopular throughout the country and prompting dissidents to look for new forms of resistance, Viačorka said.
But it was last month’s incident – Protasevich and Sapega’s detainment – that captured the world’s attention.
“Last year’s oppression was eye-opening for Belarusians…that was a wake-up call for Belarusians,” Viačorka said. “Sunday was a wake-up call for the world.”
Denber agreed, saying she hoped the hijacking would “shock people to read into what else is happening” in the European country, including the death of a dissident in prison and the arrest of additional journalists since Protasevich’s arrest.
The US responded to what some countries called a “state-sanctioned hijacking” with fierce statements of condemnation and a re-imposition of full-blocking sanctions against Belarusian enterprises and a handful of key members in the regime. The EU prepared its own package of sanctions targeting the country’s national airline and top aviation officials, as well as the Belarusian economy.
All 27 members of the EU also agreed to bar European airlines from flying through Belarusian airspace and block Belarus’s national airline from flying through or landing in the EU.
But the EU may be in a bind moving forward. As the West moves to isolate Belarus even further, the closer it pushes Lukashenko to Vladimir Putin, his complicated, on-again-off-again Russian ally.
Many top officials believe it was Putin who gave Belarus the green light to divert the Ryanair flight.
But Tikhanovskaya and Viačorka are pressing international allies to think beyond last month’s incident. On Tuesday, the opposition leader called for more US sanctions, imploring the country to take further action against enterprises and individuals supporting the Lukashenko regime.
“Sanctions should help to stop the violence and help release all of political prisoners,” she said after meeting with senators from the US Foreign Relations Committee.
Viačorka and the opposition who remain free will continue to put pressure on the regime, fighting for new, free elections and democratic reforms, he said. He’s also compelling Western politicians to help.
“I urge Americans and Europeans, be braver, be strong,” he told Insider. “The regime is the problem and if you don’t want North Korea in the the center of Europe, try to do everything to shut it down, please.”
As for Protasevich, his future remains uncertain. Last week, his mother begged the US and EU to help free her son, who faces charges of terrorism and inciting anti-government riots.
On Wednesday, Lukashenko intimated that Protasevich may face the death penalty for his “crimes” in Belarus – the last country in Europe to employ the practice.
But Viačorka knows that his friend is only one prisoner in an ongoing war.
“It’s not about Roman. We don’t want to trade for Roman only,” he said. “He will be released only when all prisoners will be released.”