Roman Protasevich’s involvement in the anti-Lukashenko movement began years before last summer’s mass protests, which were triggered by the Belarusian president’s decision to cling to power after contested elections.
Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, first came across the 26-year-old activist in 2011, long before he became the focus of last weekend’s dramatic Ryanair flight diversion. Back then, Protasevich was just one fresh-faced teenager taking part in anti-regime demonstrations.
In the following years, though, Protasevich rose to become a prominent opposition voice by working for a variety of media groups in his home country, including Radio Free Europe, and becoming the editor of Nexta, one of Belarus’s main independent media groups.
“Many Belarusian activists realised ten years ago that activism was not enough to win, and that in journalism you can do much more. At the same time, journalism cannot win alone. And this hybrid type of media activist appeared and Roman was one of them,” said Viacorka.
“He is impulsive. He is creative. He cannot accept injustice,” he added.
Now Protasevich finds himself at the centre of a global diplomatic dispute pitting Belarus against the EU, the UK and the US, after the Vilnius-bound plane he boarded in Athens on Sunday was diverted over Belarusian airspace at the order of Lukashenko himself. The activist was arrested as soon as the plane landed in Minsk.
“Looks like the [Belarus’s KGB] were following me in the airport,” he told his friends via a messaging app before boarding. “In any case — suspicious shit.”
The interception, which has drawn international condemnation and marks a worsening in relations between the Belarusian regime and the west, has underscored the lengths to which Lukashenko is prepared to go to silence his critics as he seeks to reassert control in the wake of huge protests last year.
Protasevich, who left Belarus in 2019 and now lives in Vilnius, was put on Belarus’s terror watchlist in November and was charged with three protest-related crimes, the most serious of which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Belarus’s security services have been ordered to track down the main protagonists of anti-regime protests “in any way,” according to Dzianis Melyantsou, an expert at the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.
“The goal is pretty obvious: to show that going forward, if you value your life you can’t do anything of the sort in Belarus ever again,” he said.
It was at Nexta that Protasevich’s twin roles as activist and journalist reached their widest audience. As Lukashenko intensified his crackdown on the protests that erupted against him last summer, Nexta’s channels — among the few to dodge an internet blackout — became a key source of information about what was actually happening. Nexta’s Telegram channels have more than 1.2m subscribers, in a country of 9.4m.
“My son was always someone who had a strong reaction against lies. That’s why he became a journalist,” his father, Dmitry Protasevich, told the FT. “The whole problem is that the authorities are scared of even the tiniest freedom of speech, criticism, or independent media that tell the truth.”
Nexta did not just report on the protests. It also helped co-ordinate them, providing protesters with everything from information about where to gather, what to wear and how to evade security forces. As editor in chief, Protasevich was at the heart of these activities, Nexta’s founder Stsiapan Putsila told the FT.
“Now the regime is taking revenge,” Putsila said.
In recent months, Belarusian authorities have stepped up repression against journalists from independent publications with readership beyond the urban middle class that makes up the core of the protests.
Last week, Belarus blocked Tut.by, the most popular independent news site, and charged 15 staffers with tax evasion. Several local newspapers were banned from publishing print versions and thus reaching Belarus’ working class, Lukashenko’s historical support base.
Protasevich probably became an even greater target after he quit Nexta last September to try to reach these rural Belarusians, Igor Trushkevich, a Belarusian dissident living in exile in Ukraine, told the FT. Protasevich has since been in charge of Belamova, another opposition news channel on the Telegram messaging app, with 260,000 subscribers.
Lukashenko’s regime made it clear it was targeting dissidents abroad in April when Russia’s FSB — the successor to the Soviet KGB — arrested two opposition figures in Moscow and handed them over to Belarus.
A senior Belarusian official in charge of the crackdown then vowed to “find and purge” dissidents abroad: “We remind our out-of-control, bloodthirsty opposition that we know them all,” deputy interior minister Nikolai Karpenkov said. “We know where they are, who they talk to, where their home is, and where their families are.” He added: “Let them know that vengeance is inevitable.”
The arrest of Protasevich has sent a jolt of anxiety through Belarus’s opposition in exile — not least because Tsikhanouskaya and some of her team had taken the same aerial route from Athens back to their base in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius a week earlier.
“It’s shocking, it’s devastating, it changes a lot . . . It mobilises the international community, but I am afraid that tomorrow the international community will forget,” said Viacorka.
“If the Europeans don’t want North Korea in the centre of Europe, if they don’t want aeroplanes with passengers to be shot down, they should react . . . It’s no longer a matter of Belarusian domestic policy, it is an issue of European security now.”