Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko sees exiled activist Roman Protasevich — who was arrested after a Ryanair flight he was on was diverted — 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 to join street protests in the past year, said Franak Viacorka, who advises opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
“He was writing stories, he was commenting on news and he was explaining (to) people basic things — why they should get involved in politics, why everyone must participate,” Viacorka told CNBC’s Dan Murphy on Monday.
“This is why he became the enemy, the personal enemy for (President) Lukashenko,” he said.
Belarusians took to the streets after a presidential election in August 2020 that the opposition and some election workers say was rigged. Lukashenko, who has run the eastern European country of roughly 9.4 million people for over a quarter of a century, has denied these accusations.
Viacorka said Protasevich, 26, was always fighting for justice and was a symbol of the young people who want change in the country.
Belarus on Sunday ordered its military to scramble a fighter jet to force a Lithuania-bound Ryanair plane to change course and land in its capital city, citing a potential security threat on board. State media in Belarus said Lukashenko had personally given the order.
Police arrested Protasevich when passengers disembarked in Minsk. His girlfriend Sofya Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian citizen studying at the European Humanities University in Lithuania, was also detained, according to reports.
People are usually sent for interrogations that could last for days after being detained, said Viacorka.
“This is the harshest time,” he said, adding that authorities will try to get as much information as possible from detainees.
“I’m really worried about (Protasevich’s) safety, about his health and even about his life,” he said.
Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk. Oppositionist Roman Protasewicz, who was 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 Soviet-era name of the Belarusian state security agency.
“In Belarus KGB, this is the place where people disappear. This is the place where people lose health, and sometimes people are dying,” Viacorka said.
“I hope he’s healthy and good, but I know for sure that the KGB will not let him go easily,” he said.
On Tuesday, Viacorka posted a video of Protasevich on Twitter. He wrote that the clip — in which Protasevich says he has been treated correctly and lawfully — is “terrifying” and that the journalist had “obviously” been beaten.
The Belarusian foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
He also told CNBC that Lukashenko’s actions, if confirmed, were not the sign of power but “the sign of desperation, and the sign also that Lukashenko will not stay in power for long.”
World leaders should take a tougher position over the incident, Viacorka said.
“We see how Belarus is transforming from an authoritarian state to North Korea, a North Korea in the center of Europe,” he said.
“This is not only about domestic policy, it’s about European security right now … the EU, along with the U.S., Canada and the U.K. must take a strong stance and must impose strong sanctions,” he added. Russia has defended Belarus and analysts say Moscow could benefit if Minsk’s ties with the West are strained further.
Viacorka said Belarus could be a “success story” if Washington and Brussels work together and called on European leaders to help the country.
“This is not only (a) political crisis anymore, this is a humanitarian crisis right now,” he said.
Politicians around the world have expressed outrage at the incident and pressed for the immediate release of Protasevich and Sapega.
The European Union has decided to ban Belarusian airlines from European skies and told EU airlines not to fly over Belarus. The leaders of the 27 member states also promised to enact further targeted economic sanctions.
Belarus’ opposition is working with the U.K. and EU to develop a plan of economic support, said Viacorka. He said it shows Belarusians that Lukashenko is not the only guarantor of stability and prosperity.
Local communities have also emerged and can help the country build “authentic, genuine democracy” in the future, he added.
Those who oppose Lukashenko’s regime need to stay optimistic and united on the “very long path to freedom and democracy,” he said.
“I was, many times, attacked during different rallies and protests but I must say that we were never so close to victory as we are right now,” said Viacorka.
He said he is “very hopeful” that political prisoners and those in exile will be able to return home in the next year.
“We will be thinking, together, how to build Belarus — free, European, democratic, open to the world, with people who are happy to live in this country,” he said.