Belarusian critics of Alexander Lukashenko who have fled to neighboring countries have come to the terrifying conclusion that nowhere is safe for them and the authoritarian ruler will stop at little to get to them.
Nine months into her exile, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya saw how he brazenly defied international law to force a commercial plane to land in Minsk and arrest Raman Pratasevich, a reporter despised by the regime who like her had sought refuge in Lithuania.
“Exactly one week ago I took the same flight from Athens,” she told reporters on Monday. “I could be in Raman’s place right now. From now on no person who flies over Belarusian airspace is guaranteed basic safety.”
The former teacher rose to prominence for challenging Lukashenko in presidential elections that were widely condemned as rigged. His brutal crackdown of protests last year drew international condemnation but also tested the limits of what the outside world could do, especially with Russia’s Vladimir Putin firmly in his corner.
With her husband still in jail in Belarus, she’s on the same “terrorist list” by the Belarusian secret service, still officialy called KGB, that landed Pratasevich in detention.
Since her move to Vilnius, she has kept a low private profile in the capital that’s home to 590,000, careful not to reveal the location of her home in public images or interviews. She never meets the press in her private residence and is always flanked by security detail on her trips.
She has every reason to be scared. In a chilling clip released Tuesday by the Belarusian authorities, an ashen-faced Pratasevich is filmed speaking a flat tone from what appeared to be a jail. He denied reports on social media that he was unwell and admitted to stoking unrest in his country. The circumstances of the video and indeed whether the statement was coerced remain unclear.
What is clear is that his capture was also meant to send a message to others.
“It’s a warning to Tsikhanouskaya,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, Russia’s first deputy chairman of the International Affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said in a phone interview, adding that the captured reporter was only “sitting abroad and criticizing his homeland.”
Lithuanian officials have urged for more state budget funds to be used for protection of every Belarus dissident now residing in the country, citing an increased risk. They also urged opposition activists to refrain from posting personal information on social media. Poland, the country where many Belarusian activists reside, is also warning them to be careful.
As Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski put it, “we can’t tell what the regime is capable of.”
Stsiapan Putsila, who still runs the Nexta news outlet he co-founded with Pratasevitch from Warsaw, told reporters that since the incident he’s “received over a thousand threats that I will be the next person the regime will drag back to Belarus.”
While worried for his life, he vowed to continue doing what “we’ve been doing with Raman,” he said. “It’s a matter of our life because we want to have a free and independent country.”
Yet there is a sense of foreboding and hopelessness in the fight. Ales Zarembiuk, the head of Belarusian House foundation in Poland, lamented in Warsaw that Belarusians are disappointed that after almost 10 months since the crackdown escalated there is no help from the European Union.
“After what happened yesterday this is no longer our problem,” he said on Monday. “We’re awake and what we need now is support and strategic international coalition until we win.”
A meeting of EU leaders in Brussels is discussing sanctions on Belarus and a flight blockade on the country. The worry is that none of these actions are likely to trouble Lukashenko.
In Warsaw, Pavel Latushka recalls the forced disappearances of political opponents of Lukashenko as further evidence of the kind of lengths the president will go to keep control.
A leading figure of the opposition alongside Tsikhanouskaya, Latushka previously also served as Belarusian ambassador in Poland and France and went into opposition to Lukashenko after presidential elections in 2020.
He had to leave the country amid threat of immediate arrest.
“This regime is ready to undertake any actions against people which it sees as a threat,” he said by email.
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