It was two years ago, after Belarusian authorities arrested a friend for allegedly fabricated drug charges, that Roman Protasevich first noticed suspicious men following him to Minsk and fleeing to Poland, where he sought political asylum.
Since then, dissident blogger and other opposition figures have fought strong President Alexander Lukashenko from European capitals such as Vilnius and Warsaw. Home to large expat communities in contrast to the regime, they thought they were out of their reach and protected by EU law.
Last Sunday, however, that calculation changed dramatically. Lukashenko scrambled a hunting jet at force to drop a Ryanair aircraft and arrested Protasevich while on his way home from Vilnius with his friend from a Greek party.
“I thought he was safe. I had no way of knowing what was going to happen – it was on EU territory on an EU flight, ”Protasevich’s father, Dmitry, told the Financial Times. only when he realized they were turning the plane. “
Lukashenko’s move provoked immediate Western outrage and the promise of EU sanctions. While he encouraged Belarusian opposition leaders, he also injected a new layer of fear into his life. Most of them are already in prison or in exile, where they fear for the safety of relatives at home.
“Nobody is safer at the moment. Neither in Belarus nor in the EU, “said Franak Viacorka, an assistant Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the candidate for the presidency of the opposition who fled to Vilnius last year after threats from the Belarusian security agency, still known as the KGB as in its Soviet times.
It was last August that Lukashenko, a former owner of the shown collective farm who ruled with an iron fist for 27 years, scaled his recovery against dissidents, after hundreds of thousands protested for his highly dubious re-election.
Police have later arrested more than 34,000 on protest charges, allegedly torturing several in custody. Yet, even by these standards, Protasevich’s arrest was an escalation of repression and a worrying sign of potentially impending doom.
“All fugitives and protesters” will be held accountable for their crimes, “Lukashenko threatened this week, clarifying that Belarus will pursue activists in exile wherever they are.
Protasevich’s arrest was a particular shock for Tsikhanouskaya and Viacorka, who had taken the same flight from Athens just a week earlier. “The whole KGB is now working to destroy Tsikhanouskaya. We need to be aware and we need to take care of ourselves,” Viacorka said.
It was in 2010 that the Belarusian exile community began to grow after Lukashenko resumed the last major demonstrations after declaring a failed electoral victory.
In response, Western countries have increased support for opposition-leaning media including US-funded Radio Free Europe and Polish-funded Belsat. Even so, for many years, dissidents continued to visit Belarus.
But then Nexta, a Polish-based opposition channel based on the Telegram messaging app, began publishing filters by the Belarusian authorities and films implicating Lukashenko in corruption.
Then, last summer, Nexta took a leading role in publishing accounts on the ground of the protests, though sometimes appearing to lead them. Edited later by Protasevich, his audience at some point exceeded 2 m – a huge number in a country of only 9.5 m.
Nexta’s success conveyed the depth of Belarusian frustration with Lukashenko. But he also seems to have convinced Lukashenko that dissidents in exile posed an existential threat to his reign.
“Journalists and their channels have not undermined their words. They have really been insulted [Lukashenko and his regime]”, Said Igor Trushkevich, a Belarusian dissident living in Ukraine.” It is quite possible that Lukashenko was personally offended. . . do not forgive the slight. “
To tighten the cordon around Protasevich, his family said a KGB agent tried to convince the father, a retired lieutenant colonel, to trick his son into going to Prague, where security forces raped him. When his parents moved to Poland, Lukashenko personally deprived Protasevich’s father of his military rank.
Nexta sources have also become targets. Belarus’ top court sentenced an army officer to 18 years in prison this month for sending Nexta a document showing that the interior ministry had asked thousands of troops to carry out “riots.” too much “.
Stsiapan Putsila, the founder of Nexta, says he and his colleagues have received threats since Protasevich’s arrest that they will be killed, or handed over to Belarusian authorities, or his Warsaw office blown up.
“Of course we have to be a little more careful… All the comments suggest we’re close,” Protasevich told FT. “But we must continue, we must continue to fight, we must continue to speak out against the regime and we will do so.”
Be that as it may, Trushkevich believes that the forced landing of the Ryanair flight was also designed to scare Nexta’s readers.
“The first signal is just to scare people into thinking that this could happen,” he said. “The second is to show their supporters how powerful they are and how stable the government is. Anyone who crosses a line they have drawn will have problems – all the time.”
After a turbulent week, the opposition in Belarus has mixed emotions. There is a horror at the arrest of Protasevich and his friend. But there is also hope that it will provoke the international community to act more harshly against Lukashenko, including embezzled sanctions.
“That day when we were trying to understand what was happening, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. It was terrible, ”said Aksana, a Minsk businesswoman.“ On the other hand, I hope the situation has helped remind the world to take care of us, because we can’t do it alone. We are not going to fight with weapons. ”