Back in 2011, a few years before he was murdered not far from the walls of the Kremlin, Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov had this to say about Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko:
Lukashenko is a kind of Slavic [Muammar al-]Qaddafi; in other words, he has no limits. He is a killer, he is a dictator, there are no off-ramps for him, he has burned all of his bridges, he is not in control of himself. And I have this feeling that [in Belarus], a velvet revolution is impossible.
In 2021, Nemtsov’s words ring all the more true, after months of brutal crackdown in Belarus. And with a brazen act of state terrorism to snatch dissident blogger Roman Protasevich out of the sky — imperilling a passenger plane traveling from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, in the process — Lukashenko’s bloodthirsty behaviour has gone international.
To understand the threat posed by Lukashenko, one must first strip off the ambiguities of language. Lukashenko is not “the president of Belarus” any more. All of the pretence went out of the window last year, when he openly and brazenly stole the election.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Lukashenko has obviously committed fraud and violence before. The history of his political death squads has been documented. He inspired fear yet kept the proverbial trains running on time, with Belarusian society falling in line. Minsk’s strong ties to Moscow helped the entire dictatorial enterprise keep steady.
Yet with a viable and charismatic opposition candidate running against the dictator last year, his criminal behaviour was so galling that Belarusians took to the streets en masse. Lukashenko’s open mocking of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help matters either. His people, genuinely affected by the virus, had had enough.
The protests were brutally put down — Belarusians were beaten, raped, kidnapped, tortured, and given lengthy prison terms. The internet was shut down. Every person with a shred of decency said that Lukashenko had to go. True to Nemtsov’s words, Lukashenko remained. Sanctions failed to make a major impact on his rule. The European community expressed “concern” — the equivalent of the American “thoughts and prayers” refrain — and mostly moved on to other matters.
With the kidnapping of Protasevich, a dissident journalist who was arrested after his flight was grounded in Belarus’s airspace, Belarusian officials have ascended to new highs of trolling and absurdity — a trait they share with Russian diplomats — as they claimed that the threats they used to justify bringing down the plane had come from Hamas.
While Hamas was being forced to deny that it had anything to do with grounding a European passenger plane, a sickening hostage video featuring Protasevich was released by the Belarusian KGB. (Unlike its Russian counterpart, the FSB, Belarus’s KGB didn’t even bother to change its name after the fall of the Soviet Union.)
Protasevich has always been a consistent critic of Lukashenko; he is known for getting thrown out of school in 2011 for taking part in a protest. A dark aspect of all this is that Protasevich was born in 1995. He has never known anything but Lukashenko’s rule of Belarus, which began in 1994.
In the video, Protasevich, whose face is clearly puffy and who appears to be wearing a thick layer of makeup that doesn’t entirely hide what appear to be bruises, says that he is being treated well and is cooperating with the Belarusian authorities.
The Belarusian KGB is known for publishing hostage videos like this — a video of a visibly distressed Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s 2020 election challenger, is one famous example. Again, there are no ambiguities here. This is state terrorism, and it’s a message to both Belarusians and the world. The message is simple: “We do what we want. Watch us.”
Whataboutists such as the American pundit Glenn Greenwald have likened the kidnapping of Protasevich to the Evo Morales grounding incident — in which some nations denied the Bolivian president’s plane the right to enter their airspace, possibly because the whistleblower Edward Snowden was mistakenly thought to be onboard, and it was forced to land in Austria to refuel. In doing so, they are essentially arguing that democratic countries weaponise airspace in the same way as Belarus.
The comparison is disingenuous. There was no bomb scare targeting Morales. His plane’s grounding was not conducted as a tool of crackdown against a protest movement, nor did it involve terrorising the passengers of a civilian jet. And even if you disliked the alleged US involvement in that case, how would it justify this one?
But besides hand-wringing, what can be done to aid Protasevich and thousands of people like him? Well, the journalist Ben Aris, who has covered the region for many years, has one solution, and it involves allowing Belarusians to work freely in the European Union.
While some regional experts tried to laugh Aris out of the room, he actually has a point. You can’t challenge Lukashenko without empowering his exhausted and desperate populace. And you can’t empower the populace while it remains hemmed in by his out-of-control regime, behind barbed wire. It’s a subject that requires further debate, but it does make sense.
As to whether or not Lukashenko must be challenged, the writing is on the wall — in blood and glaring neon. Nemtsov was right all along. Lukashenko is not in control of himself — and he is getting worse. Belarus state terrorism will continue.
Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington DC.