What was Lukashenko thinking?
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 (Tut.by). 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 Tut.by in the run-up to the election last August that he started to describe his opponents as tutbajowcy – but Tut.by 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.