(David Brennan’s article appeared in Newsweek, 5/28; Photo: Newsweek.)
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko shocked the world when a fake bomb threat forced a passenger plane to divert to Minsk where security forces arrested prominent dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner.
The operation was shocking in its brazenness, prompting condemnation from the international community and threats of additional sanctions against Lukashenko and his authoritarian regime, clinging to power in spite of mass protests that erupted after last year’s disputed presidential election.
Lukashenko has retained power through brutality and fear. Security forces, keen to suppress the simmering revolution, arrested and tortured thousands. Backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko has resisted calls for fresh elections and dialogue and is now intensifying an assault on the country’s surviving free media.
But for all the harsh words, the European Union, NATO, and the U.S. have so far hesitated to apply the most stringent sanctions demanded by Belarusian dissidents and human rights groups. Lukashenko’s vicious reprisals saved his regime last year, and appear to have at least bought him some time in power.
Pro-democracy campaigners and dissidents told Newsweek that Lukashenko’s latest authoritarian stunt could act as a model for other dictators worldwide unless democracies take meaningful action.
“You are not safe anywhere,” said Natalia Kaliada, a Belarusian dissident and pro-democracy campaigner who has been living in exile in the U.K. for a decade.
Kaliada and her husband, Nikolai Khalezin, fled Belarus on New Year’s Eve in 2010, soon after Kaliada was accidentally released from prison by security services thanks to a clerical error.
The couple—who now run the Belarus Free Theater in London—still regularly receive death threats, including those published in the main Belarusian government newspaper, Sovietska Belarus.
Death threats have increased since the recent protests, Kaliada told Newsweek. Asked whether she felt more in danger after Protasevich’s arrest, she replied: “I never felt safe.”
Kaliada recalled how in the past, Belarusian protesters and dissidents would be arrested, abused, and killed “behind closed doors.” But Lukashenko has seemingly unleashed his security apparatus in the wake of the recent unrest.
“They are open to killing in front of the whole world,” Kaliada said. “They are open to hijacking an airplane in front of the whole world. They’ve been badly scared.”