Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Lukashenko’s Air Piracy Has Revitalized Belarus’s Opposition

An exhausted movement finds new support abroad.

By , a writer, journalist, and artist who has reported extensively from Ukraine.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya attends a meeting.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya attends a meeting in Warsaw on Sept. 9, 2020. Omar Marques/Getty Images

On May 23, a Ryanair flight passing through Belarusian airspace from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was forced down in Minsk by a fraudulent bomb threat—backed up by a MiG-29 fighter jet escort. The falsified bomb threat was concocted by the Belarusian government for the purpose of apprehending exiled Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich. He had taken a flight that intersected Belarusian airspace on his return to Lithuania.

The 26 year old Protasevich, now held by the Belarusian KGB and tortured into making a TV confession, was a pivotal figure in developing and leading the NEXTA Telegram channel, which had been reporting on opposition protests that wracked Belarus in the wake of falsified presidential elections held in August 2020. But the strategies the Belarus democratic opposition had deployed for nine months produced a dispirited and exhausted stalemate. Ironically, the crudeness of Minsk’s actions—prompted by a personal vendetta by Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko against the young journalist—represents an opportunity to revitalize the Belarusian opposition even as repression is steadily escalating.

On May 23, a Ryanair flight passing through Belarusian airspace from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was forced down in Minsk by a fraudulent bomb threat—backed up by a MiG-29 fighter jet escort. The falsified bomb threat was concocted by the Belarusian government for the purpose of apprehending exiled Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich. He had taken a flight that intersected Belarusian airspace on his return to Lithuania.

The 26 year old Protasevich, now held by the Belarusian KGB and tortured into making a TV confession, was a pivotal figure in developing and leading the NEXTA Telegram channel, which had been reporting on opposition protests that wracked Belarus in the wake of falsified presidential elections held in August 2020. But the strategies the Belarus democratic opposition had deployed for nine months produced a dispirited and exhausted stalemate. Ironically, the crudeness of Minsk’s actions—prompted by a personal vendetta by Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko against the young journalist—represents an opportunity to revitalize the Belarusian opposition even as repression is steadily escalating.

This revitalization comes amid heart-rending tragedy. Last week, the touching suicide note of a teenage student protester who had been harassed by the authorities went viral. Earlier today, a political prisoner named Stepan Latypov cut his own throat in the middle of his hearing in a Belarus courtroom.

Part of this stems from the new limits on Belarusian citizens, increasingly stuck inside their own borders. There are now reports that only those with foreign residence permits are being allowed out—but even those with passports to elsewhere are finding it hard to travel there. The European Union has called for the closure of Belarusian airspace while its land borders are increasingly sealed. Ukraine has followed suit and closed its flights from Minsk.

A day before the Ryanair flight was forced down, I sat with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya in a conference room at the democratic opposition offices in Vilnius. Tsikhanouskaya had clearly grown more comfortable in her role as head of the political opposition, which the former teacher assumed after Lukashenko imprisoned her husband and allowed her to run against him in elections as a placeholder candidate.

A week before we met, the authorities had shut down the popular media platform Tut.By, used by two out of every three Belarusians. When I asked if this ban indicated that the next phase of escalating repression had arrived, Tsikhanouskaya gave a chillingly prescient answer. “Every time we think that they have reached a new low, we see them doing something worse to leave nothing to allow Belarusians to show the world the truth. The resistance continues, and they understand that they need more and more repression and escalation in order to keep going. Having arrested anyone that they can, they realize that they now need to undermine whole institutions and structures.”

With Moscow continuing to prop up Lukashenko, fearing the precedent of a dictator being forced out by street protesters, the opposition and Lukashenko were locked in a conflict of slow and methodical attrition. Tsikhanouskaya was stoic, but evidently—like most of the opposition members I met with—also worn out. “ We are tired,” she admitted. “I am tired. We are all tired, but let those who are tired take a break and rest for a while and get back to resist.”

Avoiding exhaustion and stagnation is difficult for opposition movements, but when I asked how long Belarusians could tolerate security services’ violence without any visible origin from the struggle, she gently corrected me, saying “they are not tolerating it now.” The movement, she argued, had a very short time frame for success, but that needed to be balanced against the risk of further endangering protesters. “Thousands of people are already in jail and ever new victims will not bring us closer to what people have been hoping for. We need to be smarter, more clever and possibly more patient,” she said.

Avoiding irrelevance in exile is difficult for any opposition movement. But in recent days, the opposition, now based in Warsaw and Vilnius, has begun to consciously cast itself as a national liberation movement by drawing parallels between the brutality of the Lukashenko security state and the former Nazi occupation of the country. Belarus suffered one the highest mortality rates in World War II, and partisan resistance is burnt into the popular imagination.

Tsikhanouskaya pointed out the opposition was counting on the breakdown of elite loyalty to the regime as more and more costs were leveraged against them. The putting off of local elections was an indicator they were afraid of any sort of popular mobilization. “More and more of them inside the system are unhappy, and they are afraid that the local elections will simply offer another reason for the population to protest,” she said. “They are afraid, and the continuous resistance has the effect of exhausting the regime. We never had the opportunity to go to the barricades because that would give the regime a reason to use overwhelming force.”

Tsikhanouskaya has spent months crisscrossing Europe to muster support for her movement. She is often greeted with the reverence reserved for a head of state or a heroic conscience of the nation and, I suspect, was understandably frustrated by the lack of follow-through to the grandiose promises of support made to the opposition by European politicians. But with the act of air piracy shocking the world, the new situation offers a tremendous opportunity to reenergize both the opposition and the willingness of Europeans to offer support.

“Europe did a great deal in the beginning and offered a great deal of moral support, and afterward, the question is how far and how quickly they could go in implementing aggressive actions against the regime,” she said. “Since December [2020], that is for six months, we have had no new concrete actions on sanctions or movement on more civil society assistance. We call on the European Union to be braver.”

The expected fourth wave of targeted European sanctions against Minsk regime officials lost steam as street protests across Belarus shrank in the face of cold weather and continued arrests and beatings. But sanctions are now back in play—as is far more European aid to the opposition. There is even a push to have Tsikhanouskaya invited as a guest to the forthcoming G-7 meeting in June. There is now no going back to the status quo. Lukashenko can no longer be ignored by those European elites who may have preferred to look the other direction.

Vladislav Davidzon is a writer, journalist, and artist who has reported extensively from Ukraine. He is the chief editor of the Odessa Review.