Why Belarus Targets Critics in the Streets and Skies

Belarus has long pursued its president’s critics on the streets, and now it’s turned to the skies. For more than 26 years, President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained his hold on power in the East European country of 9.3 million people, putting thousands of opponents in jail or forcing them abroad. Riot police and sweeping arrests gradually stamped out large-scale street protests following his disputed election in August 2020 for a sixth term. In the latest extraordinary move, Belarus forced a passenger jet flying over the country to land and hauled off Raman Pratasevich, a journalist who helped shape the opposition to Lukashenko.

1. Who is Pratasevich?

He’s a 26-year-old new media professional, who rose to prominence covering the 2020 protests and Lukashenko’s ongoing crackdown on the opposition. The former editor-in-chief of one of the most popular Telegram news channels in Belarus, Nexta Live, Pratasevich had fled the country by the time the authorities put him on their terrorist list in November. Such channels offer large numbers of participants access to a flow of news, comments, photos and video clips, which only administrators can post, via the Telegram messaging service. He has since been living in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which has offered shelter to many members of the opposition. He is chief editor for the Belamova channel on Telegram, and opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she met him in Athens a week before his arrest.

2. Why is he important for the opposition?

Pratasevich represents the new generation of political influencers who have circumvented a blackout on state-run television and internet disruptions by using social media to criticize Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. Lukashenko’s successful order to divert the plane to the capital, Minsk, shows his opponents how far he is willing to go to silence dissent and signals that they’re not beyond the reach of Belarus’s KGB even in the European Union.

Why Belarus Targets Critics in the Streets and Skies

3. Why is opposition to Lukashenko so strong?

Lukashenko, who’s accustomed to landslide victories, appeared to have taken no chances in the last election by having key challengers detained or kept off the ballot. But Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice and wife of a jailed opposition blogger, was allowed to register. She drew huge crowds at rallies nationwide. So when officials declared Lukashenko had won 80.2% of the vote with just 9.9% in her favor, public anger boiled over at suspected ballot fraud. Discontent with Lukashenko, in office since 1994, has simmered for years as the state-dominated economy stagnates. It intensified with the coronavirus outbreak, after the president rejected lockdown measures to slow the epidemic and dismissed health fears.

4. How has Lukashenko held onto power so long?

After previous elections, Lukashenko easily crushed protests that were generally small, short-lived and confined to the capital. But in 2020, thousands took to the streets nightly in more than 30 towns and cities, defying riot police armed with flash grenades and water cannons and calling for nationwide strikes. More than 6,000 people were detained in the first three nights alone, sparking international condemnation. Facing further sanctions and economic strain, Lukashenko turned to his closest ally, Vladimir Putin. The Russian president offered him loans, energy supplies and, if needed, police support. Putin also backed Lukashenko’s nominal concession on conducting constitutional reform, something the Belarusian leader had announced previously without result. Russia views Belarus as a buffer against NATO and EU encroachment toward its borders.

5. What do other countries say?

Europe’s leaders reacted furiously after a Ryanair Holdings Plc Boeing 737-800 carrying Pratasevich, his girlfriend and scores of other passengers from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Minsk on May 23 under the escort of a Mig-29 fighter jet. The plane’s crew was notified by authorities in Minsk of a “potential security threat on board,” according to Ryanair. European Union leaders on May 24 asked the European Commission to propose Belarusian officials who should be added to an existing blacklist and weighed broader measures to target businesses and entire sectors of the country’s economy. They also vowed to ban Belavia Belarusian Airlines from entering EU airspace and asked EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the incident “an attack on democracy” while U.S. President Joe Biden said it was “a direct affront to international norms.” However, previous rounds of EU and U.S. sanctions have failed to loosen Lukashenko’s hold on power, and the Kremlin has signaled it will continue to back him, dismissing the West’s outrage.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg article on the seizing of Pratasevich and a story on the EU considering sanctions.
  • The post-election response and crackdown, and the reaction by the EU and the U.S.
  • A New York Times analysis of Lukashenko’s “fading aura of invincibility.”
  • A Quicktake video on Tsikhanouskaya’s departure to Lithuania.

(Updates with description of Telegram news channels in first question, EU and U.S. comments and consideration of sanctions in fifth.)

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