The World

Belarus Hijacked a Plane. It’s Not Afraid of the Consequences.

One person holds up a sign that says "Freedom to Roman Protasevich" next to a person holding a sign that says "Your concerns are not enough."
A demonstration demanding freedom for Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday. Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

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What happened to Ryanair Flight 4978 this weekend sounds like something out of a pulpy spy novel. The plane, traveling nonstop from Greece to Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, after pilots got a message from air traffic control that there was a bomb on board. When the plane landed, Belarusian authorities pulled off a 26-year-old Belarusian dissident, Roman Protasevich, whom President Alexander Lukashenko had been trying to capture for years. His 23-year-old girlfriend was detained too. In other words, this was a state-sponsored skyjacking.

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Lukashenko has been in charge of Belarus for almost 30 years. His last election, in August, was heavily disputed; the U.S. has called it a fraud, and the EU has agreed. Citizens took to the streets to protest Lukashenko’s power grab, but those peaceful demonstrations ended in violence. Tens of thousands of people were arrested and tortured. Sunday’s skyjacking was a continuation of this authoritarian crackdown. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Julia Ioffe, a national security and foreign policy correspondent at GQ, about Lukashenko’s program of political repression, how it’s connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and what, if anything, the international community can do about it. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: I read this devastating story about a TV journalist who went on the air denouncing the violent police response to the protests in Belarus. He got arrested quite promptly. A few days later, he reappears in a video calling on opponents of the president to stop what they’re doing, and afterwards he told a reporter that these people just know how to formulate their requests in such a way that you cannot say no. It seemed very, very dark, and also very public and transparent, like everyone knew what was going on.

Julia Ioffe: Yeah, that’s what an authoritarian regime does. One of the things that journalists in this space are facing isn’t just that they could be arrested or killed. It’s that they could lose their livelihoods, and they have families and homes that they need to take care of and pay for. So sometimes you have to toe the line just to kind of feed your family.

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Because of the way journalists are treated in Belarus, a sort of shadow media industry cropped up on an encrypted messaging app called Telegram. Channels send out mass texts to spread information. Last summer, one channel, called Nexta, and its sister channel, Nexta Live, were sending protest information to almost 2 million subscribers. Describe to me who the people are behind Nexta.

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So it was started by Roman Protasevich, who was a young guy, a student and an activist, and he started this channel as an alternate information source. And then, when the revolution happened, when the protesters hit the streets, he said get out there, and helped coordinate where all the protests were happening, how to evade the police, etc.

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We’ve seen in Ukraine and in Russia that oftentimes it’s journalists who are the ones who sound the call to defend their freedom. I think for a Western audience it might be a little wild, but I think journalists see themselves in this part of the world as fighters and defenders of freedom.

Last year, authorities in Belarus put Protasevich on a list of individuals involved in terrorist activities, but he and many of his Nexta colleagues were able to avoid detention by doing their work from outside the country. That changed this weekend, when Protasevich was pulled off that flight and arrested. A short video of him was released, but how much do we know about where he is and what will happen to him now?

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Well, we don’t know a lot. I think the video was released because there were reports going around right after his arrest that he was in the hospital with heart problems and in critical condition. … So people freaked out, understandably, that critical condition sounds very serious. And people thought maybe he had been tortured to that point. People immediately noted the markings on his face. Other people noted how he was holding his hands and how his sleeves were positioned, which seemed to be hiding handcuffs. And the fact that he not only said, hi, I’m alive, I’m in good health, they’re treating me well, but that he also said that he’s confessing to the crimes he’s accused of, which is plotting mass unrest. Some of the things he’s accused of carry prison sentences of 12 and 15 years. It was really shocking, and I think people immediately started wondering what they had done to him and what they had said to him to make him confess so quickly.

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Yeah, it made me think back to that other journalist who said they have ways of getting you to say what they want.

Right. And we’re not really sure where Roman is, but his girlfriend is in a pretty notorious prison, one where a lot of protesters were tortured this summer and fall. The fact that the security services are still called the KGB, I think for a lot of people in this part of the world, it summons a lot of very dark memories of the darkest days of the Soviet Union—tortured hundreds of thousands of innocent people into giving confessions, admitting to the wildest things, of spying for the Japanese and the British and the Germans at the same time, while running counterrevolutionary rings to assassinate Stalin and his closest associates.

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Impossible things.

Right, impossible things, especially for university students or schoolteachers or factory workers being accused of this and tortured in the most horrible, kind of darkly creative ways that just make the mind reel when you read about them. And I wonder, in places like Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, to what extent that kind of historical fear is a factor and how much of the work it does for the security forces when they come in and have a quote-unquote “conversation” with you.

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When thinking about how Belarus was able to divert a commercial flight to achieve its own ends, it’s helpful to remember that President Alexander Lukashenko has a partner in authoritarianism in Vladimir Putin. Is it worth seeing these two dictators together, as a unit?

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I think, in this case, yes. If you look at August 2020, the revolution started up in Belarus and the next week [Russian opposition leader Alexei] Navalny was poisoned with military-grade nerve agent and his plane had to make an emergency landing, which saved his life. But I think those two things were connected.

After Belarus grounded Flight 4978, the international community responded pretty swiftly. The EU decided on increased sanctions, airlines started avoiding Belarus’ airspace—that’s another financial hit. You say the speed of these decisions is notable but not surprising. Putin may have Lukashenko’s back, but at the end of the day Belarus is an easy target.

It’s a lot harder for people to unify around Russia sanctions, to get everybody on the same page on how hard they’re going to go against a place like Russia. Russia’s a much bigger economic player, a big energy supplier to Europe, much more interwoven into the economic fabric of Europe, or used to be, than Belarus. And here, it’s like, all right, fuck Belarus.

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Also, I think what they did was so crazy, what was done was so over-the-top and so kind of flamboyant and zero fucks given—again, diverting a plane going between two EU countries, a plane owned by an EU country full of EU citizens. Messing around with something like a bomb threat, misusing the protocols in place for passenger safety. I think there is a feeling of a violation of European sovereignty.

It seems to me there’s this additional complicating factor where if you’re talking about a Russia or a China or a Saudi Arabia, countries similarly known for crushing dissidents in extreme ways, they have these strong ties to the U.S., to Europe, ties through oil and manufacturing. And so responding to them is both more necessary and more complicated. And it’s just a very different story with Belarus, which is a much smaller place.

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Yes. Immediately Russia gets dragged into the picture and people are asking, did Russia know about this? Did they help with this? Do we lean on Russia to punish Belarus? [French President Emmanuel] Macron said we have to rethink our sanctions policy because I think it’s reached its limit. And I think he has a point. A country like Russia, for example, you can sanction it all you want and it’s going to be basically fine, in part because of how the government is structured and Russia’s governing philosophy, which is that the people exist for the good of the state and not vice versa. Also, it has these tremendous resources, not just oil and gas, but diamonds and gold and all kinds of chemicals that the world needs and will continue to buy, and if the U.S. and Europe won’t buy them, China sure as hell will. So they’re just not as effective against a country like Russia. Especially not against China, which is an economic powerhouse that rivals the U.S. now.

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With a country like Belarus, it’s more like a Cuba situation. You isolate it, the people suffer, it will have a few foreign sponsors, big brothers that help underwrite things as it’s suffering through this economic siege. But this is kind of a question about the efficacy of sanctions anyway. Have they been that effective in Iran? Have they been that effective in Cuba? I don’t think they have been.

Now that, as you said, sanctions aren’t really working, what’s the next option?

I think also there has to be some kind of understanding—and I think that there is one increasingly in the U.S., both on the Democratic and Republican sides—that there’s just a limit to what you can do to effect change inside another country, especially when it’s somebody like Lukashenko who is fighting for his survival. He sees this 26-year-old journalist-activist, Roman Protasevich, as an existential threat—that’s why he made the plane turn around and land in Minsk, so that he could arrest a 26-year-old. He was nearly driven from power in August. And in that part of the world, when you’re driven from power, things don’t end well for you. And so what can an outside power do to convince somebody like Lukashenko, who has limited economic possibilities to begin with, that it’s worth releasing this guy or worth easing up on activists and independent media if it means a threat to his power and his life and his family’s life?

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Back in August, you were writing about the protests and sort of lamenting the fact that America wasn’t really able to get involved because we were chasing our own tail. We had our own presidential election going on and we were busy with the pandemic. It sounds like you’re saying we’re not chasing our own tail anymore, but it’s hard to know how we would involve ourselves now, now that we have the bandwidth to do so.

I think we have to do something. The question is what, and what are the goals. Is it just to inflict pain and punishment, or is it to change the outcome and get him to release Roman Protasevich? And I think increasingly it’s just going to be to inflict pain—action-reaction as opposed to making Belarus democratic. I think we’ve come a long way from the Bush years of spreading democracy and trying to force other countries to become democratic, which, as we saw, does not really work if they don’t want to do it.

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Whenever a dissident is arrested, there’s always the chance that they become a martyr and their movement grows rather than shrinks. Do you think there’s a chance that this arrest backfires on Lukashenko?

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Well, I think it’s already backfiring in the international arena. I’m not as sure what the long-term effects are going to be in Belarus. I don’t know. I’m quite pessimistic about these countries, and at this point I don’t see Lukashenko being forced from the throne by the moral force of the martyr. I hope Roman doesn’t become a martyr. I hope he survives and is released from jail, though I think he won’t be. I’m just very pessimistic.

I think what Putin showed Lukashenko and the world, through Bashar al-Assad in Syria, is that you don’t have to back down when there are protests. You don’t have to step down. You don’t have to accede to their demands. You can just pound them into the pavement, and nobody will care and nobody will do anything. The international community won’t come and save these people, even when hundreds of thousands of people are slaughtered and millions are forced from their homes and overwhelm neighboring countries with a refugee crisis. You can still win. Russia is making a big deal, for example, out of the presidential elections happening in Syria and how Bashar al-Assad is basically the consensus favorite because people are just so tired of the war. And I think that’s what people like Putin and Lukashenko have learned: that you don’t have to give an inch to these people, and you can kill them, and also—what we saw with MBS and Khashoggi—you can kill your opponents in the most horrific, brutal, medieval ways. And people will fuss in the West and they’ll condemn you and issue statements. They might even punish you economically. But at the end of the day, they’re not going to come and force you from your throne. The days of Iraq and George W. Bush are over. And I think the lesson is repression works.

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