When it comes to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, political analysts are forced to make uncomfortable landings in the realm of psychoanalysis. What bout of paranoidal fear could have caused a national leader to command his air force to intercept a civilian airplane in order to arrest — no, not a rival strongman or a dangerous terrorist — but a blogger?
Lukashenko’s decision on Sunday to divert a Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight to Minsk in order to seize the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich can hardly be explained in rational terms. The same goes for the poisoning and attempted assassination in August of the Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin whom the Kremlin had dismissively referred to as a “blogger” for years.
What is it about bloggers that makes Eastern European dictators send fighter jets and chemical weapon experts after them? Both attacks are larger than life tributes to the power of free speech, peaceful activism and open dissent. They reveal what hurts leaders like Lukashenko and Putin most, what makes them feel cornered and literally lose their mind.
Protasevich used to edit Nexta, a phenomenally successful Telegram channel, which was instrumental in mobilizing supporters of the Belarusian opposition during last year’s nationwide protests, which at times felt like a peaceful popular uprising. Navalny’s YouTube videos detailing his investigations into Kremlin’s corruption had a similar effect on Russians, dramatically increasing the geography of protest and opposition politics in the vast country.
Both movements highlight a radical generational shift in Belarus and Russia. The cohort to whom Protasevich and Navalny speak played no role in bringing their dictators to power. They have as their main source of news not television but the internet, which today serves as the main base of protest movements in both countries.
These recent attacks show just how unnerved the two dictators are by this. For most of the two decades of his reign in Russia, Putin ran a very mild semi-authoritarian regime. Lukashenko’s rule was harsher, especially in the late 1990s when several opposition figures were assassinated — but as authoritarian repression goes, it paled in comparison to European or Latin American dictators of the 20the century.
Instead, the two regimes excelled in precision-targeted repression, aimed at a very limited number of individuals but designed to send a message to entire professional and social classes, altering their political behavior.
The fact that both have now resorted to mass repression and cruel attacks on their opponents, no longer making any attempt to provide deniability, underscores the growing political volatility in both countries and vulnerability of the regimes. Having for so many years dismissed opposition supporters as hooligans, the dictators are fighting what they perceive as their life’s most decisive battle, that will end with their head on a stake unless they demonstrate utmost brutality.
Both Putin and Lukashenko have at various moments mentioned the grim death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi as something which dark forces in the West are preparing for their countries and themselves. That gives an idea of what might be going on in their heads.
And yet, the story unfolding before our eyes is not one of hopeless Belarusians and Russian condemned to dictatorship until the end of the days. On the contrary, it is more of a “darkest hour is just before dawn” kind of tale.
Lukashenko’s and Putin’s irrational fear of Protasevich and Navalny doesn’t just explain what’s going on in Russia and Belarus. It shows the way forward for those outside the country looking to help.
The Ryanair incident has quite expectedly prompted hawkish commentators in the West to demand new sanctions against both Belarus and Russia (many are convinced the Kremlin was involved, because several Russian citizens disembarked in Minsk). The proposed measures range from banishing the Belarusian national airline from the EU airspace to shutting down the NordStream 2 project. Never mind that the latter would help rather than hurt Lukashenko, whose regime benefits from transporting Russian hydrocarbons.
The trouble is that broad, non-personalized sanctions only help dictators mobilize their supporters by instilling anti-Western sentiments and a siege mentality. The ridiculously antiquated but perfectly resilient regimes in Cuba and North Korea are living examples of the futility of such policies.
Instead, as Sunday’s events showed, it is people like Protasevich and Navalny that criminal regimes see as existential threats — people who spread the word and inspire.
Far better than sanctions would be an effort to provide people like them with safe havens and opportunities to do their work in the EU — removing visa hurdles and simplifying residence rules for people who can influence their compatriots back home.
Whole sectors of both Russian and Belarusian civil societies are finding refuge in the EU during this volatile period: activists, journalists, educators, human rights workers. EU countries have become the main base for the leadership of Belarusian opposition and key strategists in Navalny’s movement.
Major Russian-language media outlets, like Meduza, and educational institutions, like the predominantly Belarusian European University of Humanities in Vilnius are operating out of Baltic countries. The newly created Free Russian University, based in Riga, has a stellar lineup of Russia’s leading academics offering free online courses to anyone who applies. The Moscow School of Political Studies — a key institution that has educated political and social leaders for 30 years — has been also forced to relocate to Latvia after having been proclaimed both foreign agent and undesirable organization in Russia.
The EU has a unique opportunity to play a key role in nurturing the new generation of Russian and Belarusian political and cultural leaders who will inevitably replace the corrupt authoritarians in power today. By embracing the healthy part of society in both countries and working together with people like Protasevich and Navalny to build a common European future, the EU will do more to bring about the end of dictatorships than any number of sanctions can ever offer.
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