February 27, 2024

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko sees exiled activist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested after diverting a Ryanair flight, as a “personal enemy,” according to a senior advisor to a Belarusian opposition leader.

That’s because Protasevich, a prominent critic of the president, played an “extremely important role” in mobilizing people for street protests over the past year, said Franak Viacorka, who advises opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

“He wrote stories, commented on the news, and explained basic things to people – why they should get involved in politics, why everyone needs to participate,” Viacorka told CNBC’s Dan Murphy on Monday.

“That is why he became the enemy, the personal enemy of (President) Lukashenko,” he said.

The Belarusians took to the streets after a presidential election in August 2020, which, according to the opposition and some election officials, had been manipulated. Lukashenko, who has ruled the Eastern European country of around 9.4 million people for over a quarter of a century, has denied these allegations.

According to Viacorka, Protasevich, 26, always fought for justice and was a symbol of the young people who want change in the country.

“Hardest time”

Belarus on Sunday ordered its military to crawl a fighter plane to force a Ryanair plane flying in Lithuania to change course and land in its capital, citing a potential security threat on board. State media in Belarus said Lukashenko personally gave the order.

Police arrested Protasevich while passengers disembarked in Minsk. His girlfriend Sofya Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian national studying at the European University of Humanities in Lithuania, was also reportedly detained.

People are usually sent for interrogations that could last for days after being imprisoned, Viacorka said.

“This is the toughest time,” he said, adding that the authorities will try to get as much information as possible from the detainees.

“I’m really concerned about (Protasevich’s) safety, his health and even his life,” he said.

The Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk. The oppositionist Roman Protasewicz on board was arrested.

Artur Widak | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Viacorka said he believed Protasevich could be in the custody of the KGB, referring to the name of the Belarusian State Security Agency from the Soviet era.

“In Belarus KGB, this is the place where people disappear. This is the place where people lose their health and sometimes people die,” said Viacorka.

“I hope he’s healthy and well, but I know for a fact that the KGB won’t let him go that easily,” he said.

On Tuesday, Viacorka posted a video of Protasevich on Twitter. He wrote that the clip – in which Protasevich says he was treated correctly and lawfully – was “terrifying” and that the journalist was “obviously” beaten.

The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

He also told CNBC that Lukashenko’s actions, if confirmed, are not a sign of power but “a sign of despair and also a sign that Lukashenko will not stay in power long”.

“Humanitarian Crisis”

World leaders should take a tougher position on the incident, Viacorka said.

“We are seeing Belarus transform from an authoritarian state to North Korea, a North Korea in the center of Europe,” he said.

“This is not just about domestic politics, but also about European security. The EU, along with the US, Canada and the UK, must take a strong stance and impose severe sanctions,” he added. Russia has defended Belarus, and analysts say Moscow could benefit if Minsk’s relations with the West were further strained.

Viacorka said Belarus could be a “success story” if Washington and Brussels work together and urged European leaders to help the country.

I have been attacked many times at various rallies and protests, but I have to say that we have never been as close to victory as we are now.

Franc Viacorca

Senior advisor to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

“This is no longer just (a) political crisis, it is currently a humanitarian crisis,” he said.

Politicians around the world have outraged the incident and pushed for the immediate release of Protasevich and Sapega.

The European Union has decided to ban Belarusian airlines from the European skies and has ordered EU airlines not to fly via Belarus. The heads of state and government of the 27 member states also promised to impose further targeted economic sanctions.

What now?

The opposition in Belarus is working with the UK and the EU to develop an economic support plan, Viacorka said. He said it shows the Belarusians that Lukashenko is not the only guarantor of stability and prosperity.

Local communities have also emerged and could help the country build an “authentic, real democracy” in the future, he added.

Those who oppose Lukashenko’s regime must remain optimistic and united on the “very long road to freedom and democracy,” he said.

“I have been attacked many times at various rallies and protests, but I have to say that we have never been as close to victory as we are now,” said Viacorka.

He said he was “very hopeful” that political prisoners and those in exile can return home next year.

“We will think together about how we can build Belarus – free, European, democratic, open to the world, with people who are happy to live in this country,” he said.