‘Why would he stop?’ Defiant Lukashenko called the bluff to the west

Since deciding to divert an EU commercial plane using a military jet and arrest the opposition activist it carries, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has attracted western anger and threats of economic sanctions. – the injured country is particularly isolated in Europe.

On Wednesday, the strong man in Belarus clarified that it was all worth it.

Speaking for the first time from forced landing on Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight 4978 to Minsk and the detentions of blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, the 66-year-old former collective farm boss warned “just an hour” before other non -objections abroad were also caught.

“We know you visually,” he said.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 27 years, has become an international paralytic after he declared victory in a controversial election last summer and suppressed peaceful protests against his regime.

On Tuesday, the EU gidili Belarus from the airspace of the block and considered penalties that could cut off key sectors of the market in its export. With most of the land’s borders closed and the country’s skies now empty, Belarusians have few ways to get away except through Russia, which Lukashenko has set up.

Roman Protasevich in court in 2017 to face accusations of participating in an unlicensed protest in Kurapaty, burial ground for victims of Belarusian Stalinism © Reuters

Although leaving the plane is under pressure despite international pressure, after months of suppressed protests, Lukashenko feels stronger at home, according to Maryia Rohava, a researcher at the university of Oslo.

“The fact that they feel they can do this kind of atrocity without fear of consequences is a sign that they feel safe in supporting Russia, in their own domestic situation, and in the lack of credibility in the EU. to impose class, punishments that will hurt the regime, ”he said.

“In the environment in which they operate, calculating costs is not even part of the puzzle.”

For a short time in August it seemed as if Lukashenko’s regime was about to collapse. Hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets every Sunday to protest the election result, while workers at a factory are thought to use Lukashenko’s political base forcefully pocketed his arrival.

Riot police in Minsk detained protesters accusing Alexander Lukashenko of stealing the presidential election in August last year © Sergei gapon / AFP via Getty Images

Lukashenko is determined holding power by tightening media control, sending riot police to crack down on violent protests, and arresting protesters, many of whom are said to have been tortured in custody. During the winter, weekly protests are sought.

Viasna, a human rights association in Belarus, said the 9.5m country has 421 political prisoners – many of the guards in some detention centers forcing them to wear yellow tags. .

“The underlying causes of the protests have not disappeared. The grievances are just as important as they were,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former UK ambassador to Minsk and now a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. only the authorities at present know how to intimidate open and visible manifestations of that dissatisfaction. “

Following Protasevich’s arrest, Belarusian authorities released videos of the blogger confessing to “organizing mass riots”, an offense that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. Father of Protasevich told Reuters Her son’s nose seemed to be broken and that he believed the plea of ​​guilt was forced.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the opposition in Belarus, tweeted that the video of Protasevich and a similarly released confession of Sapega was “horrible” and attempted to “[terrorise] the whole country ”.

On Wednesday, in an apparent attempt to intimidate political opponents, Belarusian authorities released footage showing what was thought to be the last hours of dissident Vitold Ashurak’s life. The clip showed the activist, who died on May 21 of unknown causes, alone in a prison cell and unable to stand, collapsing twice in the face.

Dmitry Stakhovsky, an 18-year-old orphan, committed suicide on Tuesday after being charged with similar crimes against Protasevich and blamed “moral pressure” from investigators on his death, according to a social media letter.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was exiled to Lithuania, responded to events this week. He said the leaked confessions of Protasevich and Sapega were an attempt to terrorize the ‘whole country’ © AP

“It’s a logical continuation of what has been seen in recent months. Nothing has stopped the pressure, no reason, and they continue,” said Artyom Shraibman, a non-resident. Minsk in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center. ”Society will never rise again and the new sanctions are all disrespectful to this day. So why would he stop anyway? ”

Protasevich’s arrest means an increase in Lukashenko’s willingness to pursue dissidents abroad, according to Shraibman. Russia’s FSB captured two opposition figures in Moscow and handed them over to Minsk’s KGB in April. Shortly afterwards, a senior Belarusian security official promised to “find and clean up” those responsible for the August protests.

The EU refuses to recognize the election after Lukashenko admitted he had lost Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania under pressure from the KGB.

French President Emmanuel Macron invited Tsikhanouskaya to attend the G7 summit next month in London, while the bloc cited economic sanctions against Belarusian companies and oligarchs from a list compiled by opposition figures.

Hopes of a settlement, however, were dashed Russia’s continued support for Lukashenko, who claims western intelligence has terrorized Belarus as a costume rehearsal for “hybrid warfare” against Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin has abandoned his strained personal relationship with Lukashenko to offer Belarus billions of dollars in loans and meet his counterpart in Sochi on Friday.

Even if Moscow is believed to have quietly pushed Lukashenko to step down after he held a long-running constitutional referendum, the Kremlin’s continued support is enough to make Lukashenko proud to roll his nose at the pressure from the west, according to Shraibman.

However, EU sanctions could “upset Lukashenko and he could go further,” Shraibman said.

“There is no way he can soften his stance that Russia is not involved in the process, or increase its costs for Russia. Because right now Lukashenko feels that Russia supports him, and he does whatever he wants. he. “

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