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.
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.’
Ever since Alexander Lukashenko’s highly contested re-election, the ruler of Belarus has had problems with the neighbours. Having spent 27 years imagining himself the true heir to Soviet power, he’s increasingly dependent on the rival he used to see as a subordinate, Vladimir Putin. And though Brussels once played counterweight to Moscow, the EU states adjoining Belarus are no longer friendly at all. Lithuania has granted asylum to Svetlana Tichanovskaya, the presidential candidate who claims to have beaten Lukashenko last August, and isn’t about to extradite her: the Lithuanian foreign minister says ‘hell will freeze over’ first. Resistance to Lukashenko has taken root among the Belarusian community in Poland, and the government in Warsaw is financing calls for regime change in Minsk.
Disarray has been spreading among Republican Party leaders. Right-wing opposition to Donald Trump is no longer confined to Reagan-era fogeys and nostalgic neo-cons. Since the Capitol riot of 6 January, toadies of long standing like Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, disappointed to learn that Trump enthusiasts hoped to make America great again by lynching them, are acting as though the president they propped up for four years is someone else’s problem. Among the rank and file, confusion is even more acute. A poll taken just before Trump left office found that Republican-leaning voters disapproved of his presidency more than ever before (though that still left 60 per cent crediting him with doing a good job).
The customs post at Bobrowniki was looking busy a couple of weeks ago. Inactive, too. When I drove there from Białystok, the stationary juggernauts snaked back ten miles. A driver halfway along said he’d already spent two nights in his cab. Individuals headed for Belarus could jump the queue, but only if they surrendered all goods acquired in Poland. When I optimistically suggested to Nikita Grekowicz, a Belarusian-Polish journalist, that we one day meet in Minsk, he smiled. ‘Not today though,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t take a cookie. And they’d probably arrest me as a spy.’
In the hope of understanding Alexei Navalny’s fate, I’ve been watching RT. The Kremlin-funded media network formerly known as Russia Today has dubious form when it comes to apparent poisonings. A couple of years ago, its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, interviewed the two men suspected of smearing Sergei Skripal’s door handle with a ‘novichok’ nerve agent. She didn’t challenge their claim that they visited Salisbury to admire its cathedral spire. Almost despite itself, however, RT’s coverage of Navalny’s sudden illness has been revealing.
Alexander Lukashenko has normalised many dubious practices during his 26 years in power in Belarus, and his share of the vote in the most recent presidential election – 80.1 per cent – is uncannily similar to the figure recorded at his five previous landslides. His initial response to suggestions of vote-rigging was characteristically ruthless. Protests were met by water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades, and three demonstrators were killed. As more than seven thousand people were taken into custody, social media were flooded with accounts and images of torture. Lukashenko wasn’t defiant in the face of the resistance so much as dismissive. His adversaries were either criminals or unemployed, he said. Insofar as they reflected a genuine threat, it was only because they were ‘sheep’ under the direction of shadowy foreign powers.
Before the lockdown began, I had been hoping to celebrate VE Day in Belarus this weekend. Within a year of winning power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko organised a march in Minsk to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, and it’s become a quinquennial tradition. Events intervened. Curiosity ceased to be a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, and Belarus requires foreign visitors to isolate themselves for 14 days. If that suggests the president is taking a precautionary approach to Covid-19, however, it’s misleading. With neo-Soviet folksiness, Lukashenko claimed in March that the disease is ‘nothing more than a psychosis’ which people could overcome by driving tractors and disinfecting themselves with vodka. He has ignored the social distancing recommendations made by the WHO, which said on 1 May that infections were spreading faster in Belarus than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below two hundred, but the true figure may be far higher. Two TV journalists were last week stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.
Orbán has been described by his biographer Paul Lendvai as a ‘master tactician, gifted populist’ and ‘radical and consummate opportunist’ – remind you of someone? Anyone familiar with Boris, however (and I was a close acquaintance for 25 years), will know that the parallels are misleading. Johnson isn’t a nationalist strongman in the Orbán mould. He’s a lot more cavalier than that.
Czechoslovakia would have been a hundred years old last Sunday, and Prague spent the weekend celebrating. I’ve been to better birthday parties. The gloomy weather didn’t help – it didn’t just rain on the parades, it poured – and the centennial narratives, never simple, were complicated further by the fact they were commemorating a state that dissolved itself in 1993.