Two years ago, after Belarusian authorities arrested a friend who had apparently committed a drug case, Roman Protasevich first noticed suspicious men following him to Minsk and fled to Poland, where he was looking for he is political.
Since then, the dissident blogger and other opposition figures have been battling powerful president Alexander Lukashenko from European capitals such as Vilnius and Warsaw. Home to many expatriate communities who have no opposition to the regime, they think they cannot reach it and are protected by EU law.
Last Sunday, however, the estimate turned out to be significant. Lukashenko fired a fighter jet forced on a Ryanair plane and arrested Protasevich as he flew home to Vilnius with his lover from a holiday in Greece.
“He thought he was safe. He had no way of knowing what was going to happen – he was in EU territory on an EU flight,” Protasevich’s father Dmitry told the Financial Times. I think the fear subsided when he found out they were circling the plane. “
Lukashenko’s move immediately provoked opprobrium in the west and the promise of EU sanctions. While congratulating Belarus’s opposition leaders, it has also injected a new layer of fear into their lives. Most of them are already in prison or in exile, where they fear for the safety of relatives at home.
“Right now nothing is safe. Neither in Belarus, nor in the EU,” said Franak Viacorka, an aide to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition presidential candidate who fled Vilnius last year after threats from Belarus’s security agency, still known as the KGB as in Soviet days.
Last August Lukashenko, a mustachioed former farm -like boss who reigned with an iron fist for 27 years, increased his resistance to opposition, after hundreds of thousands protested his questionable election.
Police have already arrested more than 34,000 on protest-related charges, allegedly intimidating most into custody. Despite the standards, Protasevich’s arrest was an escalation of repression and a worrying sign of worse to come.
“All refugees and protesters” will “answer for their crimes,” Lukashenko threatened this week, clarifying that Belarus is persecuting exiled activists wherever they are.
The arrest of Protasevich was a definite twist for Tsikhanouskaya and Viacorka, as they were flying out of Athens the same week. “The whole KGB is working right now to destroy Tsikhanouskaya. We need to know this and we need to take care of ourselves,” Viacorka said.
In 2010 the growth of the exile community in Belarus began after Lukashenko suppressed major protests after he claimed an election victory.
In response, support from western countries has increased in opposition -leaning media including US -funded Radio Free Europe and Poland -funded Belsat. However, for many years, non -protesters continued to visit Belarus.
But then Nexta, a Poland -based opposition channel with the telegram app Telegram, began publishing leaks from Belarusian authorities and films linking Lukashenko to corruption.
Then, last summer, Nexta played a leading role in publishing accounts of land protests, though sometimes appearing to oversee them. Edited immediately by Protasevich, the audience at one point was ahead of 2m-a large number in a country of just 9.5m.
Nexta’s success conveys the depth of Belarusians ’frustration with Lukashenko. But Lukashenko also seems to be convinced by this that those who spread the disagreements pose a significant threat to his rule.
“The reporters and their channels didn’t underestimate their words. They were really insulting [Lukashenko and his regime], “According to Igor Trushkevich, a non -Belarusian dissent living in Ukraine.” It is possible that Lukashenko was personally hurt. . . he will not forgive the wicked. ”
To quell the noise around Protasevich, his family said a KGB agent tried to convince his father, a retired lieutenant colonel, to trick his son into going to Prague, where he was abducted by police forces. security. Upon moving his parents to Poland, Lukashenko personally stripped Protasevich’s father of military rank.
Nexta’s origins have also been targeted. Belarus’s supreme court this month sentenced an army officer to 18 years in prison for sending Nexta a document showing that the interior ministry was asking thousands of troops to stop “ mass unrest ”.
Stsiapan Putsila, the founder of Nexta, said he and associates had received threats from Protasevich’s capture that they would be killed, or handed over to the Belarusian authorities, or their Warsaw office destroyed.
“Of course we have to be more careful. . . all the comments suggest we are next, ”after Protasevich, he told FT. “But we have to keep going, we have to keep fighting, we have to keep speaking out against the regime and we will do that.”
As such, Trushkevich believes Ryanair’s forced landing was also designed to intimidate Nexta’s readers.
“The first signal is just to scare people by telling them it can be done to them,” he said. The second is to show their supporters how strong they are and how strong the government is. Anyone who crosses a line they have plotted has problems – permanently. ”
After a turbulent week, opposition inside Belarus has a different sentiment. There is a panic of arresting Protasevich and his lover. But there is also hope to urge the international community to take more difficult action against Lukashenko, including changing penalties.
“That day in our attempt to find out what was going on, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. It was terrible,” said Aksana, a Minsk businessman. On the other hand, I hope the situation helps remind the world to pay attention to us, because we can’t do it on our own. We don’t fight with guns. ”