The fate of Roman Protasevich has taken another unexpected turn. Though the powers-that-be in Belarus have described him as a ‘terrorist’, they initially pretended that his arrest was unplanned. On Alexander Lukashenko’s account, a bomb threat necessitated the grounding of his Ryanair flight, and his presence on board was a coincidence. But a new narrative has gained traction. State media are reporting that his detention, like the arrest of his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, wasn’t an accident after all. It was a Western plot. To intensify pressure on Belarus, Western secret service agents ‘framed’ Protasevich.
The logic required to reach that conclusion is convoluted, and reflects weeks of shifting developments. As soon as Protasevich was arrested, the government began recirculating an old allegation against him – that, as a 19-year-old photojournalist in eastern Ukraine, he’d worn a military uniform and fired guns – and pro-Moscow separatists in the region promptly indicated they’d like to try him for genocide. On 1 June, Lukashenko told Belarusians he’d assured Vladimir Putin he was happy to help. Threatened with indictment for war crimes by a kangaroo court, Protasevich has ceased fighting for anything, except his life. In a ninety-minute interview screened nationwide on 3 June, he admitted to plotting a pro-Western rebellion, expressed admiration for Lukashenko’s ‘balls of steel’, and tearfully wished for a simpler future with a wife and children.
The televised capitulation won’t have won Lukashenko much support, but it wasn’t really meant to. Allowing the public to pity a broken man displays a ruler’s strength to subjects who might otherwise question it (Sapega’s apparent non-compliance is potentially more significant; a failure to crush her wouldn’t look very strong at all). Making menacing gestures at foreign audiences matters too. In response to the hostility that greeted his violation of international law – a reaction that apparently surprised him – Lukashenko has issued a threat. If the West insists on hastening World War III, he told his parliament on 26 May, Belarus will inundate the European Union with undesirable immigrants and illegal drugs.
The follow-through seems already under way. Lithuania has reported an increase in irregular crossings, and its security cameras have apparently caught Belarusian guards smoothing away tell-tale footsteps in the sandpits that stretch along the 680-kilometre frontier. Turning a blind eye to emigration may not be the end of it. Echoing an allegation that Lukashenko himself is fond of making, Lithuanian government ministers are complaining of a ‘hybrid war’, and have suggested that Belarusian officials are enticing Iraqis to Minsk for onward travel northwards. Commentators sympathetic to Vilnius say suspicious foreigners are arriving from Baghdad and Istanbul by the planeload, four times a week.
The numbers involved are small – perhaps three hundred people arrested so far – but the consternation is telling. Tough though it would be for Lukashenko to send waves of Arab and Asian drug-traffickers crashing across the continent (his security forces are quite busy already), the anxiety that his threat has triggered in Lithuania could easily escalate into overt racism. That would fuel divisiveness throughout Europe, making Western politicians’ calls for freedom sound even hollower than usual.
Lukashenko isn’t the first authoritarian who’s tried to exacerbate xenophobia among Europeans with talk of open borders, and like previous scaremongers – Gaddafi in August 2010 or Erdoğan in March 2020, for example – he’s being cynical. His own government is no friend to the destitute, the desperate and the persecuted: Tajiks and Chechens seeking asylum are routinely returned east, on the spurious basis that Russia is a safe third country.
Lukashenko’s stance is ironic in a less obvious way as well. Central and Eastern Europe is often seen by Western Europeans as an exceptionally hostile environment for immigrants, but regional attitudes to population movements are actually quite complicated. Millions of people have emigrated westwards since the Cold War’s end, and with birth rates far below the 2.1 required for reproductive stability, the population of every post-Communist state has shrunk dramatically. Countries from the Baltics to the Balkans have offered generous incentives to couples to raise children, and tried strenuously for years to lure each other’s younger citizens with tax breaks and offers of dual nationality. The demographic decline hasn’t been reversed anywhere – but, until last August, Belarus was doing better than most.
No longer. To cling to power, Lukashenko has victimised so many people – not just journalists, academics and cultural workers, but also health professionals – that Belarus’s brain drain has turned from a trickle to a torrent. Information technology, a once vibrant economic sector that accounted for more than 5 per cent of GDP before the protests began last summer, is looking especially vulnerable: dozens of companies, and thousands of workers, have relocated to Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States.
On 31 May, five days after Lukashenko warned that he was going to unleash dangerous migrants on the European Union, his government announced that it was going to stop almost everyone else from leaving Belarus. The restriction is supposed to be temporary. It’s ostensibly a precaution against Covid-19 (a danger Lukashenko dismissed as a ‘psychosis’ when it was more expedient to deny the disease). In reality, it’s another sign that he’s running out of options. A leader who promises to control everything except the drugs trade and people traffickers isn’t in control of much at all.