What was Lukashenko thinking?

Sadakat Kadri

All that’s so far certain about Alexander Lukashenko’s decision last Sunday to force down a Ryanair flight on its way from Athens to Vilnius is the immediate outcome. Roman Protasevich, an exiled Belarusian journalist on board, was arrested after the plane landed. Criminal charges have been outstanding since November – because he helped run a Warsaw-based Telegram channel that circulated material hostile to Lukashenko after August’s contested presidential election – and within 24 hours, the authorities had what they wanted. The 26-year-old, his face visibly bruised, appeared on state television to assure the world that he had been ‘treated with respect’ and was co-operating with the police. Wringing his hands, he kept the rest of his statement short: ‘I confess to organising mass protests in Minsk.’

According to his fellow passengers, Protasevich had been visibly afraid as the plane descended. While trying unsuccessfully to stash his phone and laptop, he had said he was going to be executed. With luck, it won’t come to that (the charges laid so far carry a maximum of fifteen years imprisonment), but Lukashenko’s Belarus isn’t somewhere you want to rely on luck, and Protasevich is definitely in jeopardy. Last month, the Belarusian secret service (still called the KGB) designated him a ‘terrorist’. One of the penalties for terrorism in Belarus is a bullet to the back of the head.

Yet more ominous observations are prompted by the biggest mystery surrounding last Sunday’s events: why Lukashenko scrambled a MiG-29 against a commercial passenger jet in the first place. The official explanation – a bomb threat emailed to Minsk airport at some uncertain time by ‘the soldiers of Hamas’ – is so unconvincing that only Moscow says it merits investigation (Hamas, meanwhile, claims someone is out to sully its good name). If Lukashenko was hoping to confound the world, the best he’s done is fortify a few apologists: the kind who excuse dictators’ brutalities by observing that liberals do bad things too.

The most plausible explanation is idiosyncratic. Lukashenko has long despised Nexta Live, the Telegram channel Protasevich used to work for. Two months ago Nexta’s 22-year-old founder, Stepan Putsila, posted a YouTube video accusing the Belarusian president of corruption on a grand scale. The idea of silencing Putsila has doubtless crossed Lukashenko’s mind, but violations of Polish law would take careful planning. Breaching aviation conventions, less so. And after Lukashenko learned from either his KGB or Russian intelligence that Nexta’s former editor-in-chief was expected in the vicinity – just ten thousand metres overhead – the chance to lunge was too tempting to forego.

It has provoked justifiable international concern, but fits a pattern of domestic repression that’s also worth noting. In early May, Lukashenko dishonourably discharged more than eighty senior security officials – among them, Roman Protasevich’s father – as part of a jittery response to information from the Kremlin about a supposed coup attempt. On 18 May, he ordered a series of paramilitary raids that have decapitated the biggest independent news organisation in Belarus ( Twenty-nine journalists are now behind bars (more than a tenth of the total jailed worldwide in 2020), and two new laws rubber-stamped last Monday by parliamentarians in Minsk have further criminalised journalism and restricted telecommunications. The political prisoner population – 436 on 27 May, according to the human rights monitoring group Viasna – will surely grow.

The tough gestures, including last Sunday’s arrest by fighter jet, are meant as shows of strength, but betray the opposite. Lukashenko’s increasingly paranoid, vengeful perspectives are being influenced by Russia as never before. He was so disturbed by in the run-up to the election last August that he started to describe his opponents as tutbajowcy – but is the Yahoo of Belarus, an economically dynamic conglomeration of online services that includes the most popular news portal in the country. Trying to extinguish it could be described in several ways – regressive, desperate, nihilistic – but it isn’t a long-term plan.

It’s still hard to imagine Belarus without Lukashenko – 27 years into his dictatorship, he’s been in charge for longer than a quarter of Belarusians have been alive – but one person is certainly imagining it. On 9 May, Lukashenko signed an emergency decree providing for collective rule by the National Security Council in the event of his death by ‘assassination, terrorism, external aggression or other violent act’. It’s characteristic of his inclination to melodrama and self-pity, but also reflects a mood more volatile than ever before. ‘He now realises that if he loosens his grip, it’s over,’ I was told by the Belarusian-Polish journalist Nikita Grekowicz, ‘so he’s tightening it hard.’ Flight FR4978 was brought down for no good reason – but in Belarus, there’s a bomb on board.


  • 30 May 2021 at 12:35pm
    Clive says:
    "... best he’s done is fortify a few apologists: the kind who excuse dictators’ brutalities by observing that liberals do bad things too."

    I'm no apologist for Lukashenko or his goons, but I do find it somewhat falling that the media in the West are so compliant in painting the country as beyond the pale, when we have several journalists who have challenged power in the West imprisoned or else in self-imposed exile.

    Let's not forget that these kinds of shenanigans are far from off limits ( for our pious and noble leaders in the free world.

    No doubt Lukashenko is a shit and I pity the poor young journalist who's fate is now in his hands. It just makes me want to vomit to read all about it from those (and I'm *not* referring to Mr. Kadri here) that stay silent or worse lend their support when the powers that be on their shores take action against dissent that is every bit as ghastly.

  • 1 June 2021 at 5:33pm
    Netherwood says:
    Hmm, I had hoped for a more nuanced approach to this from the LRB. Why? Because I'm the kind who excuses dictators’ brutalities by observing that liberals do bad things too? No (and nice attempt to shut down the debate from the author there), it is because I think there is more to this than we are being told by Kadri, or his friendly activists.

    Of course, liberals have been doing bad things; Belarus did not invent extraordinary rendition or Guantanamo Bay, nor did it ground and search the plane of the Bolivian president. No doubt that was for democratic reasons, but it doesn't help politicians who are trying to claim the moral high ground now.

    This article and the media's narrative is poor because there is more to this story than we are being allowed to see. For example the suggestion that Belarus sent a fighter to force the Ryanair flight to divert is wrong. You can read the transcripts between the pilot and ground control. The flight diverted to Minsk because it was told it would blow up over Vilnius. The bomb threat came in 2 emails, one after the other. The Lithuanian police said that the flight diverted to Minsk after consulting Ryanair's management, not after swerving to avoid a MiG. It seems relevant, but complicates the argument against Belarus, I suppose.

    As for the people arrested, they are complicated too. Calling Protasevich a journalist sits well if you want to appeal to readers here, sure, and he did some time at Radio Liberty, but a bit of context is needed. He was an activist, and it looks like he took his activism as far as to volunteer to fight for the far-right Azov Battalion in Ukraine in 2014, being wounded in the fighting there. That battalion is composed of neo-Nazis. Quite why he was then welcomed by the State Department and Warsaw I leave to others to determine. And his girlfriend? She apparently helps run the Black Book of Belarus which makes public the home addresses of police officers, judges and supporters of the regime, why else but for some kind of retribution sooner or later. In Ukraine, Myrotvorets, which exposes pro-Russian voices and often leads to them getting beaten up, is a similar doxing operation run by similar people.

    Perhaps it is a bit fanciful to be asking for a bit more balance when we seem to be caught up in an operation to change the regime in Minsk by manipulating divisions in society there. This was something we did so successfully in Ukraine and, in return, we got cheap labour, a country loaded with debt, arms sales up, privatization in full swing, agricultural land being sold for a pittance. And the added bonus - we can carry on like this whilst also blaming Putin for destabilizing the region

    • 3 June 2021 at 12:19pm
      Clive says: @ Netherwood
      This is an excellent comment. Much more informative than my error-strewn brain-fried rambling above.