Skip to main content

Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich, detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk, in a pre-trial detention facility, as he says, in Minsk, Belarus May 24, 2021 in this still image taken from video.REUTERS TV/Reuters

The first time Roman Protasevich was arrested he was 17 years old. He had caught the attention of Belarusian secret police, who discovered he was the source of a social media page simply titled: “We are sick of this Lukashenko.”

As a minor, he was released after just a few hours. But not before he learned what life is like for those who oppose the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. “They hit me in the kidneys and liver,” he told a journalist in 2012. “I urinated blood for three days afterward. They threatened to accuse me of unsolved murders.”

The young activist did not back down – and the dictator did not change. Mr. Protasevich would go on to become the editor-in-chief of Nexta, a channel on the Telegram app that became the bugle of last year’s uprising against the regime. Tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets, and Mr. Lukashenko responded the way he always has: with violence.

Brazen ‘hijacking’ of Ryanair flight shows West running out of tools to deal with Belarus

This week, the enmity between the now-26-year-old dissident journalist and the 66-year-old strongman of Belarus became the vortex of a security crisis in the heart of Europe after Mr. Lukashenko ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair passenger plane so his regime could once again arrest Mr. Protasevich.

The brazen act – described by the airline as a “state-sponsored hijacking” – has prompted Western governments to bar their airlines from flying over Belarus. Canada, the United States and the European Union already have sanctions in place against Mr. Lukashenko’s regime – punishment for election fraud (Western governments, and most Belarusians, believe the presidential election last August was won by challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya) and the crackdown on protesters that followed.

Mr. Lukashenko complained Wednesday that Belarus – which announced the day before that it would soon close its embassy in Ottawa – was the target of a “hybrid war” being waged by the West. He accused Mr. Protasevich of plotting a “bloody rebellion,” an accusation that could carry the death penalty.

The lengths to which Mr. Lukashenko went to detain a critic have also spread new concerns among Belarusian political exiles, many of whom now live in neighbouring Poland or Lithuania. There are fears the regime – which already stands accused of murdering several prominent opponents over the course of Mr. Lukashenko’s 27-year reign – will target other dissidents living abroad.

There was additional security this week as Ms. Tsikhanouskaya met with members of her de facto government-in-exile in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and at least two of those who travelled to take part in the meeting first checked with their airline to confirm their flight would not cross over Belarus.

“Many people had been relaxed, thinking that they were safe here or in Vilnius. Now they realize that the Belarusian regime is much more dangerous,” said Aliaksandr Atroshchankau, a veteran opponent of Mr. Lukashenko who now lives in Warsaw.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin backing the Belarusian regime, Mr. Atroshchankau said dissidents were “afraid of other acts of revenge, like Putin’s acts on the Skripals or on Litvinenko” – a reference to the 2018 chemical weapon attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia and the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko using radioactive polonium. Both men were former Soviet KGB agents who were living in England. Russia has denied any involvement in the assassination plots.

Mr. Lukashenko’s own security forces are widely believed to be responsible for a string of disappearances dating back to 1999. More recently, recordings emerged suggesting the Belarusian KGB had for years sought to kill Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarusian journalist who died in a 2016 car bombing in Kyiv. At least four people have been killed in police violence aimed at quelling last year’s post-election protests, and 50 others are missing.

Mr. Atroshchankau, a close friend of Mr. Protasevich, said Mr. Lukashenko’s anger at him was “personal.”

“Roman has unique and symbolic biography. … When he was 16, he won presidential prize for math, I believe, and joined opposition rallies. His life and career is a kind of demonstration – that talented youth are against Lukashenko. And this makes him a kind of personal enemy for dictatorship. His father was an officer and very strong Lukashenko supporter, but now he is in opposition under influence of his son.”

Mr. Protasevich’s father, Dmitry, was an instructor at Belarus’s military academy until he was stripped of his rank last year for supporting the protests.

Mr. Protasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also on the Ryanair flight and was arrested. She has made a video statement “confessing” to editing a Telegram channel that posted the personal information of police officers. Belarusian activists say the 23-year-old – a Russian national who was attending university in Vilnius – was not politically involved and is likely being held prisoner solely to pressure Mr. Protasevich.

Katarzyna Jerozolimska, a Belarusian journalist and former girlfriend of Mr. Protasevich, said he, too, appeared to have been forced into making a video confession. “Traces of the beatings are visible. [He looked] scared. The intonation and manner of speech is not of a person who is doing well and who is being treated correctly,” she wrote in an exchange of messages with The Globe and Mail.

She said she believed Mr. Protasevich had been targeted because, as one of the main figures at Nexta – before leaving earlier this year to co-found a new blog, Belarus of the Mind – he was one of the most important figures in the uprising. “It’s easier to detain him than Tsikhanouskaya,” she said. “Those protests that began in Belarus would not have happened so massively without him.”

Another factor was likely the fact that he – like several other key figures in the uprising – had worked for the Belarusian version of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.-government-funded outlet. RFE/RL, which played a key role in breaking the Soviet Union’s monopoly over information in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, is considered a regime-change agent by both Mr. Lukashenko and the Kremlin.

Pro-Kremlin social media accounts have also tried to suggest Mr. Protasevich has extremist views because he spent time with the Azov Battalion, a far-right Ukrainian militia that fought Russian-backed “separatists” when they seized parts of Eastern Ukraine. Mr. Atroshchankau said Mr. Protasevich had been in Ukraine only as a journalist and that the accusation he held “Nazi” views – an oft-used tool for attacking opponents of Mr. Putin or Mr. Lukashenko – was ludicrous. “He is the most open-hearted and empathic person I’ve ever met.”

Tadeusz Giczan, who succeeded Mr. Protasevich as editor-in-chief at Nexta, said Mr. Protasevich’s opposition to Mr. Lukashenko was homegrown. “He was born when Lukashenko was already in power. During our entire lives, we’ve witnessed the absurdity of Lukashenko’s regime. In Belarus, if you have any plans, if you have any ideas, you immediately become an enemy of the state, because the state has to sanction everything.”

Mr. Giczan, 28, said that while Nexta staff were rattled by the arrest – at least one person moved to a new apartment – they intended to keep up their critical reporting of Mr. Lukashenko’s regime. “We’ll probably be more vigilant. It’s all we can do,” he said. “This has shocked us, but it didn’t scare us.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.