“Why should he stop?” Defiant Lukashenko calls the bluff of the West

After deciding to hijack an EU commercial aircraft with a military jet and arrest opposition opposition activists, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has attracted Western outrage and threats of economic sanctions – even isolating him. the landlocked country of Eastern Europe.

On Wednesday, the strong Belarusian man made it clear that everything was worth it.

Speaking for the first time since forced landing of Ryanair flight 4978 in Vilnius in Minsk and the detentions of blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, the 66-year-old former head of the collective operation warned that it was only “a matter of time” before that other dissidents abroad will be caught as well.

“We know you by sight,” he said.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 27 years, was already an international pariah after declaring victory in last summer’s elections and resuming peaceful protests against his regime.

Tuesday, the EU banned Belarus from the block’s airspace and is considering sanctions that could cut key sectors of its export market. With most land borders closed and the sky above the country now empty, Belarusians have few ways to leave other than for Russia, which has been beside Lukashenko.

Roman Protasevich in court in 2017 to face charges of participating in an unpunished protest in Kurapaty, site of a mass grave for Belarusian victims of Stalinism © Reuters

But the plane’s interception underscores that, despite international pressure, after months of suppressing protests, Lukashenko feels stronger at home, said Maryia Rohava, a researcher at the University of Oslo.

“The fact that they feel able to commit this atrocious act without fear of consequences is a sign that they feel very confident in Russia’s support, in its domestic situation, and in the EU’s lack of credible commitment. to impose the kind of sanctions that would hurt the regime, ”he said.

“In the environment where they work, calculating costs wasn’t even part of the puzzle.”

For a brief moment last August, it seemed that Lukashenko’s regime itself was about to collapse. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets every Sunday to protest the election result, while factory workers thought to employ Lukashenko’s political base whistling at him loudly when he came to make a speech.

Riot police in Minsk arrest protesters accusing Alexander Lukashenko of stealing the August presidential election last year © Sergei gapon / AFP via Getty Images

Lukashenko decidedly attached to power tightening media control, sending riot police to disperse protests violently, and arresting dissidents, many of whom say they have been tortured in custody. In the winter, weekly protests erupt.

Viasna, a Belarusian human rights association, said the 9.5 million-strong country had 421 political prisoners – so many that guards at some detention centers forced it to wear yellow tags.

“The underlying reasons for these protests have not gone away. The claims are as important as they are,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former UK ambassador to Minsk and now a former member of the International Institute for Disease Control. Strategic Studies. “It’s just that the authorities at the moment have learned to intimidate open and visible manifestations of that discontent.”

Following Protasevich’s arrest, Belarusian authorities leaked videos of the blogger confessing to “organizing mass riots”, an offense that carries a sentence of 15 years in prison. Protasevich’s father he told Reuters the son’s nose seemed to be broken and he believed the admission of guilt had been forced.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the opposition in exile in Belarus, tweeted that Protasevich’s video and a similar confession leaked by Sapega were “terrifying” and an attempt to “[terrorise] the whole country. ‘

Wednesday, in an apparent attempt to intimidate political opponents, the Belarusian authorities filmed released showing what is thought to be the last hours of Vitold Ashurak’s dissident life. The film showed the activist, who died on May 21 for unknown reasons, alone in a prison cell and unable to stand, collapsing twice in the face earlier.

Dmitry Stakhovsky, an 18-year-old orphan, committed suicide on Tuesday after being accused of similar crimes to Protasevich and accused of “moral pressure” by investigators for his death, according to a note on social media.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, exiled in Lithuania, responded to events this week. She says the confessions leaked by Protasevich and Sapega are an attempt to terrorize “the whole country” © AP

“It’s a logical continuation of what we’ve seen in recent months. No one stops the repression, there’s no reason for that, and they continue,” said Artyom Shraibman, a non-resident colleague from Minsk at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Society is not growing again and new sanctions have so far been completely unserious. So why should it stop?”

Protasevich’s arrest meant an escalation in Lukashenko’s willingness to prosecute dissidents abroad, Shraibman said. Russia’s FSB arrested two opposition figures in Moscow and handed them over to the Minsk KGB in April. Shortly afterwards, a senior Belarusian security official vowed to “find and purge” those responsible for the August protests.

The EU has refused to recognize the election after Lukashenko claimed defeat Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania under pressure from the KGB.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has invited Tsikhanouskaya to attend next month’s G7 summit in London, while the bloc envisages economic sanctions against Belarusian companies and oligarchs from a list compiled by figures from the opposition.

The hopes of a settlement were dashed by Russia’s continued support for Lukashenko, which claims that Western intelligence destabilizes Belarus as general evidence for “hybrid warfare” against Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin has put aside his strained personal relationship with Lukashenko to offer Belarus billions of dollars in Russian loans and meet with his counterpart in Sochi on Friday.

Although Moscow is thought to be pushing quietly for Lukashenko to leave after holding a long-delayed constitutional referendum, the Kremlin’s continued support is enough to encourage Lukashenko to snub his nose at pressure from the West, according to Shraibman.

Instead, EU sanctions could “irritate Lukashenko and could escalate further,” Shraibman said.

“There is no way that he will soften his position without involving Russia in the process, or increasing the costs of this for Russia. Because for now Lukashenko thinks that Russia supports him, and that he is doing everything he can. ‘he likes it.’

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