Exiled critics of Alexander Lukashenko have realized their adopted European homes aren’t necessarily safe after the Belarus strongman forced a commercial jet to land in order to arrest a dissident journalist this week.
Nine months after fleeing Belarus, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya saw how Lukashenko brazenly defied international law to 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 by challenging Lukashenko in presidential elections last year that were widely condemned as rigged. His brutal crackdown of the subsequent protests drew international condemnation but also tested the limits of what the outside world can do, especially with Russia’s Vladimir Putin firmly in his corner.
With her husband in jail in Belarus, Tsikhanouskaya has been placed on the same “terrorist list” by the Belarusian secret service, still called the KGB, that landed Pratasevich in detention.
Since her move to Vilnius, she has kept a low profile in the capital of 590,000, careful not to reveal the location of her home. She never meets the press in her residence and is always flanked by a security detail in public.
She has every reason to be scared. In a chilling clip released Tuesday by the Belarusian authorities, an ashen-faced Pratasevich denied reports on social media that he was unwell and confessed to stoking unrest in his country. His former employer, the news outlet Nexta, said he appeared to have been beaten.
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 “sitting abroad and criticizing his homeland.”
Lukashenko’s decision to launch a fighter jet to ground the flight, widely praised by Kremlin-controlled state media, has shaken Russian dissidents as well.
“There is an illusion that you live on the territory of the European Union under the protection of the European police and everything seems OK,” Vladimir Milov, a Putin critic who lives in Vilnius, said. “I have a trip to Sweden coming up, and now I am thinking I’ll have to choose an airline won’t fly over Kaliningrad,” referring to the Russian enclave.
Lithuanian officials have asked for more budget funds to protect Belarus dissidents residing in the country, citing the increased risk. Poland, another country that hosts many Belarusian activists, is warning them to be careful.
Opposition activists should take extra precaution because “they are moving targets” for the KGB, the head of the Lithuanian parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Zygimantas Pavilionis, said Tuesday.
Stsiapan Putsila, who co-founded Nexta with Pratasevich and still runs it 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.”
Despite the risks, Putsila will continue running the outlet. “It’s a matter of our life because we want to have a free and independent country,” he said.
Yet there is a sense of foreboding and hopelessness in the fight. Ales Zarembiuk, the head of Belarusian House foundation in Poland, said people are disappointed that nearly 10 months after the crackdown escalated there is no help from the EU.
At an EU summit Monday, the bloc told its airlines to avoid flying over Belarus and the leaders ordered work on new sanctions to target businesses and entire sectors of the country’s economy. However, past measures have failed to undermine Lukashenko.
In Warsaw, Pavel Latushka said the forced disappearances of political opponents of Lukashenko are evidence of lengths the president will go to keep control.
A leading figure of the opposition alongside Tsikhanouskaya, Latushka previously served as ambassador to Poland and France before turning against Lukashenko after the 2020 elections.
He left the country in September under the threat of imminent arrest.
“This regime is ready to undertake any actions against people which it sees as a threat,” he said by email.