The arrest of blogger and journalist Roman Protasevich by Belarusian authorities on Sunday was only the latest in a series of repressive actions against the country's opposition and free media. Ever since Belarus’s fraudulent elections in August 2020, the state has tried to quell popular protest and independent reporting. However, the circumstances of Protasevich’s arrest – the forced landing of a passenger plane flying from one EU country to another, through the use of a fighter jet and claims of a bomb threat, and Protasevich’s removal from the landed plane – made headlines across the globe.
While the full circumstances of the incident and the chain of command will be hard to verify, it appears either that the Belarusian regime underestimated the international outrage and new sanctions the incident would result in; that it was indifferent to the consequences of its behaviour; or that it even sought to provoke such an international reaction. All these possibilities hint at a regime that currently fails to play by even the most basic rules of the international community, let alone the codes of international aviation. Any sort of rapprochement between the West and Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko – even of a limited, pragmatic nature on issues of common concern – is increasingly unlikely. This is to the detriment of both European stability and the Belarusian population.
It may help to understand the arrest to look at the target of this action by the KGB, Belarus’s intelligence service which still bears its Soviet name. Roman Protasevich is the co-founder and former editor (until November 2020) of the Telegram channel NEXTA. At currently more than 1 million subscribers, NEXTA has been instrumental in spreading information about the protests in Belarus and the violent reaction by the state. Protasevich is only 26 years old. Messenger channels like NEXTA, and social media more generally, have been particularly important during the protests, which have been effectively decentralised and not orchestrated by any central leadership. This extends to the opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whose campaign was an important rallying point to voice frustration about the regime, but who was by no means the only leader of the movement.
Accordingly, activists and journalists like Protasevich have been critical targets for the regime, seeking not only to silence its critics and the mobilisers of protests, but particularly to intimidate others. This is the message authorities are sending with Protasevich’s arrest: that their critics cannot feel safe, not even in third countries or the troposphere. Indeed, many opposition leaders and Belarusian media companies are already operating from abroad – from Lithuania or Poland, for example – after being forced into exile or arrested. Subject to politicised trials in Belarus, they could face years in prison just for minor offences, or even the death penalty.
This arrest has wider implications, though. First, it does not suggest that the Belarusian regime is strong if it goes to such lengths to arrest one of its critics. It points to a regime that is cornered and feels compelled to act increasingly erratically. Second, such conduct will be closely observed by other autocratic regimes seeking to silence their critics. In this light, decisive reaction and condemnation by the international community are even more important. Third, the incident points to a Belarusian regime that appears to care less and less about its reputation and remaining ties – politically or economically – with Europe and the West more generally.
This represents a shift compared to the period between 2014 and 2020, when Belarus sought to play a constructive role in (Eastern) European security – for example, by offering Minsk as a venue for peace talks on Ukraine, or when it invited observers to military exercises as a trust-building measure. Lukashenko proclaimed his aim was to foster ties with all parties, East and West, and he was willing to alienate Russia in the process. This partial pragmatism even ensured that he retained a certain degree of popularity among the Belarusian population. Some hope remains that, when he feels secure in his position and seeks a political transition, Lukashenko may again employ a degree of pragmatism. Even limited cooperative ties with the West could help guarantee Belarus’s sovereignty and limit its dependence on its major ally, Russia. With his latest acts of repression, however, Lukashenko has made it more difficult for any Western leader or government to interact with him ever again, even on urgent common interests.
Not only does this fact add to instability in Eastern Europe, particularly with regard to Belarus’s neighbour, Ukraine, but it also has very tangible effects on the lives of the Belarusian people. As the EU has banned Belarusian planes from landing at its airports, Belarusians are now even more restricted in their mobility, with land borders remaining closed due to the pandemic and political tensions. The opposite would in fact be more desirable: granting Belarusians unrestricted access to Europe through visas, scholarships and means of transport. Activists should be granted humanitarian visas and victims of repression must be able to access support, instead of facing closed borders. Balancing these issues will remain a challenge for the EU. When it comes to dealing with an unresponsive Belarusian regime and sanctions in general, there are no easy answers.
Benno Zogg, a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, is a member of Minsk Dialogue’s Council of Experts and focuses on the international politics of Eurasia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Andrzej Otrębski/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0