What's going on in Belarus — and why a journalist got pulled off a flight and arrested

·5 min read
The Boeing 737-8AS Ryanair plane from Athens that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk by Belarusian authorities is shown after landing at the international airport in Vilnius, Lithuania, its initial destination, on Sunday. An opposition journalist on the plane was arrested. (Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
The Boeing 737-8AS Ryanair plane from Athens that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk by Belarusian authorities is shown after landing at the international airport in Vilnius, Lithuania, its initial destination, on Sunday. An opposition journalist on the plane was arrested. (Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

The isolation of Belarus deepened Tuesday as commercial jets avoided its airspace, the European Union worked up new sanctions and officials expressed concern for the welfare of an opposition journalist.

Roman Protasevich was arrested Sunday after being pulled off a plane that was diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, in what the West called a state-sponsored hijacking. The plane was flying from Greece to Lithuania.

Here's a quick look at how we got here:

Why is there dissent in Belarus?

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has been in power since 1994 and is Europe's longest-serving ruler.

He governs the country of nearly 9.5 million people with an iron fist, controlling the media and cracking down on opposition movements and dissident voices.

He began a sixth five-year term in August 2020 after an election that was widely seen as rigged, and his re-election sparked months of protest and opposition, with as many as 100,000 people regularly taking to the streets of Minsk.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, shown in April, began a sixth five-year term in August 2020 after an election that was widely seen as rigged, and his re-election sparked months of protest and opposition.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, shown in April, began a sixth five-year term in August 2020 after an election that was widely seen as rigged, and his re-election sparked months of protest and opposition.(Alexander Astafyev/Sputnik/Reuters)

The demonstrations have been met with violent crackdowns, and tens of thousands of people have been arrested since the latest round of protests began.

In April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Belarus to end its pattern of brutality against protesters.

A Belarus-based human rights centre, Viasna, has documented more than 1,000 cases of torture among detained protesters.

By suppressing opposition through harsh police actions and keeping much of the country's economy under state control, Lukashenko has made Belarus a neo-Soviet outlier, wary of its thriving NATO and European Union neighbours.

People attend an opposition rally in Minsk in September 2020 to protest the presidential election results and the inauguration of Lukashenko.
People attend an opposition rally in Minsk in September 2020 to protest the presidential election results and the inauguration of Lukashenko.(Reuters)

Who is Roman Protasevich?

The 26-year-old dissident journalist has been an anti-Lukashenko voice since he was a teen. His protest activities got him expelled from school and later from the Belarusian State University, where he studied journalism.

He was named a Vaclav Havel journalism fellow in 2017-18, a joint program between Radio Free Europe and the Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry aimed at promoting more open societies through journalism.

Protasevich co-founded the Nexta Live channel, which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has more than one million subscribers. The channel, which is openly hostile to Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting the opposition protests against the president in 2020.

It also broadcast the police crackdown during the protests.

Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, who was detained when the Ryanair plane he was travelling on was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday, is shown in a pre-trial detention facility on Monday, in this still image taken from video.
Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, who was detained when the Ryanair plane he was travelling on was forced to land in Minsk on Sunday, is shown in a pre-trial detention facility on Monday, in this still image taken from video. (Telegram@Zheltyeslivy/Reuters TV/Reuters)

In November, Protasevich and his Nexta co-founder were put on a list of individuals deemed to be involved in "terrorist activity," and he was accused of organizing mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. The charges carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is also based.

Protasevich was writing for another Telegram app called Belamova at the time of his arrest.

WATCH | Why Protasevich was targeted and what he might face:

How did Protasevich get arrested?

Protasevich was on a flight Sunday from Athens to Vilnius.

He was taken into custody by Belarusian authorities after Belarusian flight controllers told the crew of the Ryanair jetliner that there was a bomb threat against the flight and ordered it to land. A Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet was scrambled to escort the plane.

<cite>(CBC News)</cite>
(CBC News)

He was seen Monday in a brief video clip shown on Belarusian state television, speaking rapidly and saying that he was giving testimony about organizing mass disturbances.

Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the UN's human rights office, said that Protasevich's brief appearance "was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his 'confession' to serious crimes was forced."

WATCH | The video of Protasevich that aired Monday:

What has international reaction been?

EU leaders took unusually swift action in response at a summit on Monday. They agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, imposed sanctions on officials linked to Sunday's flight diversion and urged the International Civil Aviation Organization to start an investigation into the episode some described as state terrorism or piracy.

They also demanded the immediate release of Protasevich.

Polish carrier LOT and Baltic airlines began bypassing Belarus on Tuesday. Air France, KLM, Finnair, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines have all said they will also avoid flights over the country.

The U.K., which is no longer part of the EU, also recommended that carriers not fly over Belarus, and British Airways flights were avoiding the country.

WATCH | Trudeau calls the behaviour of the Belarusian regime 'outrageous':

What happens now?

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc will introduce more sanctions that will target "businesses and economic entities that are financing this regime."

Some say more sanctions will do little to alleviate the situation and will only push Belarus even closer to Russia and reduce the influence of the EU and others.

"Lukashenko will become an increasingly easy prey for the Kremlin," said Alexander Klaskouski, an independent Minsk-based political analyst.

"As a pariah country, Belarus will find it much more difficult to fend off the Kremlin demands for the introduction of a single currency, the deployment of air bases and access to lucrative Belarusian economic assets."

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