Roman Protasevich’s participation in the anti-Lukashenko movement began years before last summer’s protests, triggered by the Belarusian president’s decision to seize power after the by-elections.
Franak Viacorka, an aide to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, first spotted the 26-year-old activist in 2011, before she became the center of Ryanair’s dramatic tour last week. In the past, Protasevich was just a new face teenager who took part in anti-regime demonstrations.
In the following years, however, Protasevich rose to become a prominent voice in the opposition by working for various media groups in his country, with Radio Free Europe, and became editor of Nexta, one of the main independent media groups in Belarus.
“Many activists in Belarus realized ten years ago that activism is not enough to win, and that in journalism you can do so much more. At the same time, journalism cannot win alone. And this hybrid that media activist class shows and Roman is one of them, ”Viacorka said.
“She is persistent. He is creative. He cannot accept injustice, “he added.
Now Protasevich finds himself at the center of a global diplomatic dispute facing Belarus against the EU, UK and US, after the plane he boarded in Vilnius in Athens on Sunday was diverted. in the space of Belarus at the behest of Lukashenko himself. The activist was immediately arrested on the plane flight to Minsk.
“As there is [Belarus’s KGB] following me to the airport, ”he told his friends via a messaging app before boarding. “In any case – suspicious shit.”
Restraint, obtained international condemnation and marked the deterioration of relations between the Belarusian and western regimes, emphasizing the length at which Lukashenko was willing to silence his critics as he sought to re-establish control later in the many protests. last year.
Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019 and now lives in Vilnius, was placed on Belarus’s terror list in November and charged with three protest -related crimes, the worst of which carries a sentence of up to 15 years. imprisonment.
Belarusian security services have been ordered to monitor the main protagonists of the anti-regime protests “by any means,” according to Dzianis Melyantsou, an expert at the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.
“The purpose is very clear: to show that in the future, if you value your life you will no longer be able to do any kind of Belarus,” he said.
It was at Nexta that Protasevich’s twin roles as activist and journalist reached their largest audience. As Lukashenko stepped up his crackdown on protests that erupted against him last summer, Nexta’s channels – among some avoiding an internet blackout – have become a source of information about the real happened. Nexta’s Telegram channels have more than 1.2m subscribers, in a country of 9.4m.
“My son has always been a man with a strong reaction against lies. That’s why he became a journalist,” his father, Dmitry Protasevich, told FT. “The whole problem is being scared. the authorities have even the slightest freedom of speech, criticism, or independent media telling the truth. “
Nexta didn’t just report on the protests. It also helped coordinate with them, giving protesters everything from information about where to gather, what to wear and how to evade security forces. As a chief editor, Protasevich was at the center of these activities, Nexta founder Stsiapan Putsila told FT.
“Now the regime is taking revenge,” Putsila said.
In recent months, Belarusian authorities have stepped up restrictions against journalists from independent publications with a readership beyond the urban middle class that have been the cause of the protests.
Last week, Belarus blocked Tut.by, the most popular independent news site, and charged 15 staff with tax evasion. Many local newspapers were banned from publishing print versions and thus reached out to the working class of Belarus, the basis for supporting Lukashenko’s history.
Protasevich may have become even more prominent after he left Nexta in September to try to reach rural Belarusians, Igor Trushkevich, a Belarusian dissident living in exile in Ukraine, told the FT. Protasevich has since run Belamova, another opposition news channel with the Telegram messaging app, which has 260,000 subscribers.
The Lukashenko regime made it clear that it was targeting distrusts abroad in April when Russia’s FSB – followed by the Soviet KGB – captured two opposition figures in Moscow and handed them over to Belarus.
A senior Belarusian official has vowed to “find and clean up” distrusts abroad: “We are reminded of our uncontrolled, bloodthirsty opposition that we know them all,” according to 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 sent a whole lot of concern by Belarus’s opposition to exile-not least because Tsikhanouskaya and some of his team were traveling the same aerial route from Athens back to their base in the capital. in Lithuanian Vilnius last week.
“Shocked, devastated, many changes. . . It mobilizes the international community, but I am afraid that tomorrow will be forgotten by the international community, ”Viacorka said.
“If Europeans don’t want North Korea in the center of Europe, if they don’t want planes with passengers to crash, they have to act… It’s no longer part of Belarus’s policy, it’s an issue. in the security of Europe today. ”