The detention of Raman Pratasevich shows how far Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator-president, will go to shut down protest, says Professor Andrew Wilson (UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies).
On Sunday, three secret service agents and a Belarusian fighter jet "hijacked" a Ryanair plane from Athens as it crossed Belarusian airspace, just minutes before it reached Lithuania. The target was an opposition journalist, Raman Pratasevich, who helps run the Telegram channel Nexta, the main voice of the Belarusian opposition, many of whom are now in exile in Lithuania and Poland. This seems to be Belarus’s equivalent of a Litvinenko or Navalny moment - a message to the opposition that no one is safe from the regime, whether at home or abroad.
From detention in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, Pratasevich was forced to make what looks like a hostage video, "admitting" to organising mass disturbances and appearing as if he had been badly beaten. Pratasevich, however, is just one of hundreds of political prisoners detained in Belarus since mass protests against a rigged election in August 2020. This extraordinary act of piracy is therefore three things: it is dictator-president Alexander Lukashenko’s attempt to completely shut down the ongoing protests against his 27-year rule (Pratasevich is 26); it is a dramatic internationalisation of what had been largely a domestic problem; and an open show of contempt for the ability of the Europe and the US to do anything about it.
Why did the regime target Pratasevich? In 2005, Condoleezza Rice dubbed Belarus "the last true dictatorship in the heart of Europe". Lukashenko has rigged every election since 1994. The EU first imposed sanctions on Belarus in 2004, strengthening them on Lukashenko and his associates in 2011.
But the country’s geopolitical situation changed dramatically once the war in Ukraine began in 2014. Belarus had to protect its own sovereignty, and diversify economically and diplomatically to reduce its traditional dependence on Russia. Its capital city hosted the Minsk agreements, peace negotiations over the war in Ukraine. The 2015 election was rigged as normal, but there were no real protests, as the opposition didn’t want to rock the boat. The regime started to object to being called "the regime"; Lukashenko even joked that he wasn’t the "last dictator" any more: Vladimir Putin in Russia or Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan were worse. Most sanctions were lifted the following year.
But things had changed by 2020. Six years of diversification had empowered civil society, and the government undercut its authority by ignoring coronavirus. And then Lukashenko mismanaged the election - or failed to rig it properly. He excluded what he thought were the most dangerous candidates but he mockingly allowed the wife of one, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to stand, supported by other women from the other campaigns. Lukashenko said the burden of the presidency would cause Tsikhanouskaya to "collapse, poor thing". She didn’t. Lukashenko claimed he won the election by 80% to 10%. Independent counts and an online platform for recording votes, called Golos (meaning "Voice"), had Tsikhanouskaya and Lukashenko roughly equal or Tsikhanouskaya ahead.
Enter Pratasevich. He helped set up Nexta, meaning [you are] "somebody" in Belarusian, which was the main channel for organising the three months of mass protests from August to November last year. The state media’s legitimacy was already waning as a result of its Covid-19 propaganda; people were looking for the medical truth elsewhere, now they sought the political truth. Nexta was semi-encrypted and allowed protesters to bypass official media and periodic attempts to shut down the internet. At its height, 2.5 million Belarusians were using it, out of a population of more than 9 million. Ironically, the government’s diversification strategy had involved building up a strong local IT sector, many of whose workers were now at the forefront of the protests and helping to harass the regime online.
It took three months, but the government shut the protests down with unprecedented repression. More than 30,000 people were arrested; hundreds were tortured in prison, at least three demonstrators were killed and others disappeared. By comparison, under martial law in communist Poland in the early 1980s, only 10,000 were arrested, and the Polish population is four times as big as that of Belarus. But it was Nexta that kept things going, as the opposition shifted tactics to flash protests. Sanctions were imposed by the EU, UK and USA but were weak, and have not been updated since December.
Since then the government has sought to eliminate all remaining opposition. More than 400 political prisoners are estimated to be in jail. There have been leaks of alleged government plans to build detention camps and target opposition members abroad. In April, a supposed coup plot against Lukashenko was hyped on state media. It is no coincidence that the seizure of Pratasevich happened just after the authorities also shut down the largest domestic independent news portal, Tut.by, which also had a huge domestic audience of 3.3 million, 63% of local internet users.
How should the world react? The EU has called for European airlines not to fly over Belarus and prevented the national airline Belavia from using EU airports. But this would also prevent members of the opposition from leaving Belarus. The country is not as invulnerable as it might look. The economy is weak and Russia cannot pay all the bills. Targeted sanctions against exports, potash and oil products, and against trading in Belarusian bonds, could apply useful pressure. Otherwise Europe may have another rogue state on its borders.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on 26 May 2021.