How Roman Protasevich became one of Lukashenko’s prized targets

Roman Protasevich’s involvement in the anti-Lukashenko movement began years before the mass protests last summer, sparked by the Belarusian president’s decision to cling to power after contested elections.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, first met the 26-year-old activist in 2011, long before he became the subject of the spectacular Ryanair hijacking. last weekend. At the time, Protasevich was just a fresh-faced teenager participating in anti-regime protests.

In the following years, however, Protasevich became a prominent voice of opposition working for various media groups in his home country, including Radio Free Europe, and becoming the editor of Nexta, the one of the main independent media groups in Belarus.

“Many Belarusian activists realized ten years ago that activism is not enough to win and that journalism can do much more. At the same time, journalism cannot win on its own. And this hybrid type of media activist came up and Roman was one of them, ”Viacorka said.

“He’s impulsive. He’s creative. He cannot accept injustice, ”he added.

Today Protasevich finds himself at the center of a global diplomatic dispute between Belarus and the EU, the UK and the US, after the plane to Vilnius he boarded in Athens on Sunday. was hijacked over Belarusian airspace on the orders of Lukashenko himself. The activist was arrested as soon as the plane landed in Minsk.

“It looks like [Belarus’s KGB] followed me to the airport, ”he told his friends via a messaging app before boarding. “Anyway – suspicious shit.”

The interception, which drew international condemnation and marks a worsening of relations between the Belarusian regime and the West, underlined how ready Lukashenko is to silence his critics as he seeks to regain control in the aftermath. huge protests. year.

Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019 and now lives in Vilnius, was placed on Belarus’ terrorist watch list in November and charged with three protests-related crimes, the most serious of which carries a sentence of up to go up to 15 years in prison.

Belarusian security services have been ordered to track down the main protagonists of anti-regime protests “in any way,” according to Dzianis Melyantsou, an expert from the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.

“The goal is quite obvious: to show that in the future, if you enjoy your life, you will never be able to do anything like this in Belarus again,” he said.

It was at Nexta that Protasevich’s twin roles as activist and journalist reached their widest audience. As Lukashenko stepped up his crackdown on the protests that erupted against him last summer, Nexta’s channels – among the few to avoid an Internet blackout – became a key source of information about what was really going on. Nexta’s Telegram channels have more than 1.2 million subscribers, in a country of 9.4 million.

“My son has always been someone who had a strong reaction against lies. That’s why he became a journalist, ”his father, Dmitri Protasevich, told FT. “The whole problem is that the authorities are afraid of any freedom of expression, of criticism or of independent media that tell the truth.”

Nexta did not just report on the protests. He also helped coordinate them, providing the protesters with information on where to gather, what to wear and how to escape the security forces. As editor-in-chief, Protasevich was at the heart of these activities, Nexta founder Stsiapan Putsila told the FT.

“Now the regime is taking revenge,” Putsila said.

In recent months, Belarusian authorities have stepped up the crackdown on journalists from independent publications whose readership exceeds the urban middle class, which is the heart of the protests.

Belarus last week blocked, the most popular independent news site, and charged 15 employees with tax evasion. Several local newspapers have been banned from publishing print versions and thus reaching the Belarusian working class, Lukashenko’s historic support base.

Protasevich likely became an even bigger target after leaving Nexta last September to try to reach these rural Belarusians, Igor Trushkevich, a Belarusian dissident living in exile in Ukraine, told FT. Protasevich has since been in charge of Belamova, another opposition news channel on the Telegram messaging app, which has 260,000 subscribers.

The Lukashenko regime made it clear that it was targeting dissidents abroad in April when the Russian FSB – the successor to the Soviet KGB – arrested two opposition figures in Moscow and handed them over to Belarus.

A senior Belarusian official then vowed to “find and purge” dissidents abroad: “We remind our uncontrollable and bloodthirsty opposition that we all know them,” said Deputy Interior Minister Nikolai Karpenkov. “We know where they are, who they are talking to, where their home is and where their families are.” He added: “Let them know that revenge is inevitable.”

Protasevich’s arrest caused a jolt of anxiety across opposition from Belarus in exile – not least because Tsikhanouskaya and part of his team had taken the same air route from Athens to their base in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius an week before.

“It’s shocking, it’s devastating, it changes a lot. . . It mobilizes the international community, but I’m afraid that tomorrow the international community will forget, ”said Viacorka.

“If the Europeans don’t want North Korea in the center of Europe, if they don’t want passenger planes to be shot down, they should react. . . It is no longer a question of Belarusian domestic policy, it is now a question of European security. “

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