Why Belarus risked the wrath of the world to arrest an activist

Is Lukashenko set on revenge or trying to send a message with Roman Protasevich’s detention? Belarusians say both motives are possible.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled since 1994, a year before Protasevich was born [File: Maxim Guchek/BelTA Pool Photo/via AP]

In Belarusian, “to land” may also mean “to jail”.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko scrambled a military jet to forcibly land a passenger airliner on Sunday night because of a “bomb report” that turned out to be fake.

The Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight had to divert to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, where police arrested journalist Roman Protasevich for his alleged involvement in “extremism”.

“They’ll execute me here,” the horrified Protasevich reportedly told a fellow passenger as law enforcement officers were about to take him away.

He may be right, because “extremism” is punishable by death in Belarus, Europe’s last nation where death row inmates are executed at dawn, on their knees, with a gunshot in the back of their heads.

Even to other victims of Lukashenko’s political purges, the whole operation seemed inhuman.

“How can you summon air force to land a peaceful plane? This is not the way humans act,” Yuri Bandazhevsky, a Belarusian scientist, told Al Jazeera.

Bandazhevsky himself fled to neighbouring Ukraine because his research into the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Belarus contradicted official data.

So, why does the 66-year-old leader want so badly to “land” Protasevich, a 26-year-old critic who was born a year after he came to rule?

And what does the “landing” mean to their ex-Soviet and still deeply “Sovietised” Eastern European nation of 10 million?

Analogue vs digital

Protasevich has protested against Lukashenko since he was a teenager. He was kicked out of a university and fled to Poland, fearing his arrest.

Last year, he was the editor of the Nexta, a Telegram and YouTube channel that covered and helped coordinate massive, months-long opposition protests that followed Lukashenko’s sixth presidential election in August 2020.

The former collective farm manager has ruled Belarus since 1994 and has been dubbed Europe’s “last dictator”.

His opponents and Western governments view most of his election victories as “rigged” and “unfair”.

Lukashenko’s rule seems to many in Europe anachronistic – or, some may say, “analogue”.

And Nexta was his worst digital and generational foe.

The channel’s name is a pun, something between “next” (as in “generation next”) and “nehta”, or “someone” in Belarusian (as in “anonymous”).

The channel began operating in 2015 as a harmless outlet for music videos.

But one of the songs – aptly titled No Choice – described Lukashenko’s presidential campaigns and immediately drew the ire of security agencies.

Blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who was accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, April 10, 2017 [File: Stringer/Reuters]

The channel started releasing politicised content – such as a video about the death penalty in Belarus that was seen more than 5.5 million times.

After anti-Lukashenko protests erupted in August 2020, Nexta became their main mouthpiece.

Anyone could anonymously contribute text messages, photos or videos to the channel – making it the most effective tool for hundreds of thousands of protesters rallying throughout Belarus and facing riot police who beat up, detained and tortured them.

Armed with the Nexta feed, they could learn on the go whether police were approaching them. They could flee and regroup, find out where their detained friends were being taken and what was happening to them.

The channel was a symbol of a potentially imminent digital victory over the political dinosaur, and Protasevich was part of it.

Between late August and September, Lukashenko’s administration seemed doomed.

His key supporters – workers from state-run, Soviet-era plants and factories who received modest, but stable salaries – joined the rallies or started strikes.

But the protesters lacked a leader.

Presidential hopeful and political first-timer Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who came second with 10 percent of the August 9 vote, fled to neighbouring Lithuania, and other, more experienced leaders did not dare to return to Belarus and lead the rallies.

In October, a court in Minsk outlawed Nexta as “extremist” and listed its staffers as “terrorists”.

Russia’s rescue

Meanwhile, Russia, neighbour and ally of Belarus, bailed Lukashenko out.

Russian President Vladimir Putin provided hefty loans and dispatched a team of experienced journalists from Kremlin-controlled television networks who helped change the coverage of the protests in Belarusian state media.

For decades, Belarus has been hopelessly dependent on Russia economically.

Most of its exports go there, and hundreds of thousands of Belarusians work in Russia in construction or agriculture.

Moscow has for decades propped Lukashenko’s government up with loans and cheap crude that was processed and resold to Ukraine and the European Union.

Belarusian businesses also relabelled and resold European foodstuffs Russia banned in response to Western sanctions over Crimea. Russians still joke about shrimp and Italian cheese “made” in Belarus.

Predictably, the Kremlin has not joined the choir of Western governments that condemned the landing.

“In this case, there are many controversial statements, and we wouldn’t want to take part in this race, to compete in condemning or supporting anyone,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov told journalists during a conference call on Monday.

Blind revenge

The operation to land the plane and arrest Protasevich may seem irrational.

The anti-Lukashenko protests have been quelled, exiled opposition leaders appear helpless and unable to stop the purges or inspire further unrest.

The entire team of the Nexta channel relocated to Poland as their family members bore the brunt of Lukashenko’s anger.

Protasevich’s father, a retired army colonel, was stripped of his rank in early May, according to a government decree.

To some Belarusians who grew up under Lukashenko, the landing was a personal vendetta.

“This is crazy, blind revenge,” Jan Khadkevich, a Belarusian IT expert who currently lives in Israel, told Al Jazeera.

Lukashenko “will not stop to avenge someone who stood up to him”, he said.

Analysts say that the landing was a two-pronged message to his friends and foes.

“This is a political message – to the Belarusian political migrants of the new wave, and on the other hand – to his supporters, the so-called ‘electoral swamp’,” Igar Tyshkevich, a Belarusian analyst based in Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.

“The message is that the government is strong and may get to anyone,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera