The detention of a former editor of the NEXTA Telegram channel, Roman Protasevich, following a move by Belarus authorities to force-land Ryanair's passenger jet in Minsk, was a tactical win for Lukashenko, but also a loss at a strategic level.
Lukashenko did win some points because he managed to practically snatch from the sky one of the key figures who authorities claim had been "sowing chaos" in Belarus. Frightened by protests, the Belarusian regime perceives Protasevich as one of the main instigators and masterminds of the mass rallies. Fear has big eyes, so Lukashenko's entourage is convinced that Protasevich is a valuable asset and source as he could allegedly tell them, who financed the protests, how much the West helped, which special services were involved, who were the coordinators and informants.
Also, Lukashenko in this case was personally guided by the revenge motive: after all, some rookie youngster somehow managed to set up a powerful platform that promoted the protest action, incited crowds, and informed the world about the developments Belarus. So the Belarus leader might have sought to nab the guy just to tell him "Look at you now!"
From the dictator's point of view, indeed, it was a victory – the one on a tactical level. Moreover, this story could be highlighted to show other Belarusian opposition figures that Lukashenko's regime has long arms, so anyone could be located found and apprehended. So this is an element of intimidation.
By his actions, Lukashenko worsened his own situation and pushed himself further into the arms of the Russian bear
Strategically though, Lukashenko has lost. After all, the issue of the disputed presidential election and protests in Belarus has recently receded into the background, while global agenda has changed. No one even recalls opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya anymore. Lukashenko is just as toxic, but many seem to have accepted the status quo: the crook is still there but at least there's no more violence in Belarus, which is good.
But by his actions, Lukashenko worsened his own situation and pushed himself further into the arms of the Russian bear. He has yet again angered everyone and destroyed the calm that had been established around him. Had he refrained from such a move, Belarus would have seen economic normalization one way or another because "time heals everything." But Lukashenko ruined everything: he enraged the entire Western world – both Europe and the United States. After that, even tougher sanctions could be imposed against him and his entourage. That is, he burned all bridges, it seems.
This last straw has convinced the world that Lukashenko is an inadequate ruler, ready to give any outrageous orders. However, on the other hand, this gives the West additional leverage over the Belarus leader. But at the same time, Lukashenko had driven himself firmly under Putin's heel.
I don't rule out the possibility that this whole operation had been planned with Russia's support. On his own, Lukashenko couldn't have done such an elaborate job: to make sure that Protasevich bought specific tickets, boarded a certain a flight, and so on… The Belarusian KGB would have lacked resources to achieve success in this endeavor.
There is a death penalty in Belarus, but I don't think Protasevich will be executed
As for the further fate of Mr Protasevich, there are three options for developments:
- 1 Protasevich will be intimidated by the KGB into testifying;
- 2 He will be imprisoned, and the Belarusian authorities will make a whole show out of it. I don't even rule out the option where he will be killed;
- 3 Putin will play his own game: Lukashenko will pursue the investigation, get the required incriminating testimony, and convict Protasevich to life, while Putin will come forward as a mediator to ensure that Protasevich be released, which in the end would be a PR bonus for the Russian president.
It should be recalled that Belarus has death penalty in place, but I don't think Protasevich will be executed. After all, in this case, firstly, Belarus would go total North Korea, which would imply a corresponding stance of the international community towards Lukashenko. Although, of course, even now Lukashenko’s actions suggest he has gone totally rogue.
Secondly, the capital punishment for Protasevich would cause public outrage, which is something Lukashenko wouldn't want to face. Indeed, from a political perspective, Protasevich is a new iconic figure, the new face of protest. That is, the execution would be too costly a move for the regime, so there's simply no sense in executing Protasevich.
Belarus may well be disconnected from SWIFT
Thirdly, the international implications for Belarus and the Lukashenko regime would be rather severe. If the "nation's father" decides to execute the ex-editor, Belarus will find itself "besieged" and turn into a "black hole" on the European map: the world will minimize contacts with Belarus, foreign embassies will cease operations, while foreign trade will be put to a full halt. Also, Belarus may well be disconnected from SWIFT (this is not Russia, after all).
Europe might not confine itself to "deep concern" statements because it was too impudent a step that outraged many. Eastern Europe, in particular, Lithuania, Poland, and others, will vehemently push Brussels to act. This is not so much an issue of Protasevich's fate, this is more about a threat to the European Union, because the lives of European citizens are in jeopardy, too. At the very least, Eastern European countries will work toward banning flights over Belarus and impose economic sanctions.
Anatoly Oktysiuk is a political expert with the DemocracyHouse think tank