Belarus hijacking reveals what dictators fear most: freedom of speech – POLITICO
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Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Riga.
As for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, political analysts are forced to make uncomfortable landings in the field of psychoanalysis. What episode of paranoid fear could have caused a national leader to order his air force to intercept a civilian plane in order to stop – no, not a rival strongman or a dangerous terrorist – but a blogger?
Lukashenko’s decision on Sunday to divert a Ryanair flight from Vilnius to Minsk in order to seize Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich can hardly be explained in rational terms. The same goes for the poisoning and assassination attempt in August of Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin whom the Kremlin had called a “blogger” for years.
What prompts bloggers to send fighter jets and chemical weapons 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 the most, which makes them feel cornered and literally lose their minds.
Protasevich used to edit Nexta, a phenomenally successful Telegram channel, which was instrumental in mobilizing Belarusian opposition supporters during last year’s nationwide protests, which at times looked like a popular uprising. peaceful. Navalny’s YouTube videos detailing his investigations into Kremlin corruption had a similar effect on Russians, dramatically increasing the geography of protest and opposition politics across the vast country.
Both movements highlight a radical generational change in Belarus and Russia. The cohort Protasevich and Navalny speak to has played no role in bringing their dictators to power. Their main source of information is not television but the Internet, which today serves as the main base for protest movements in both countries.
These recent attacks show how baffled the two dictators are. For most of the two decades of his rule in Russia, Putin ruled a very mild semi-authoritarian regime. Lukashenko’s reign was harsher, especially in the late 1990s when several opposition figures were assassinated – but as authoritarian repression wears off, it pales in comparison to 20th century European or Latin American dictators. century.
Instead, both regimes excelled in precisely targeted repression, targeting 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 the two have now resorted to mass repression and cruel attacks on their opponents, making no further attempts at denial, underlines the growing political volatility in both countries and the vulnerability of the regimes. Having dismissed opposition supporters as hooligans for so many years, dictators are waging what they see as the most decisive battle of their lives, which will end with their heads on the stake unless they protest the greatest brutality.
Both Putin and Lukashenko have at various times mentioned the grim death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi as something the dark forces of the West are preparing for their country and for themselves. It gives an idea of what might be going on in their head.
And yet, the story unfolding before our eyes is not that of the Belarusians and the hopeless Russians, condemned to dictatorship until the end of days. On the contrary, it is more of a story like “the darkest hour is just before dawn”.
The irrational fear of Lukashenko and Putin for Protasevich and Navalny does not only explain what is happening in Russia and Belarus. He shows the way for those outside the country looking to help.
The Ryanair incident has, quite expected, prompted hawkish commentators in the West to demand new sanctions against both Belarus and Russia (many are convinced the Kremlin was involved, as several Russian citizens have landed in Minsk. ). The proposed measures range from banning the Belarusian national airline from EU airspace to shutting down the NordStream 2 project. transport of Russian hydrocarbons.
The problem is that broad, non-personalized sanctions only help dictators mobilize their supporters by instilling anti-Western sentiments and a siege mentality. The ridiculously outdated but perfectly resilient regimes of Cuba and North Korea are living examples of the futility of such policies.
Instead, as the events of Sunday showed, it is people like Protasevich and Navalny that criminal regimes see as existential threats – people who spread the word and inspire.
A much better effort than sanctions would be to provide people like them with safe havens and opportunities to do their jobs in the EU – removing barriers to obtaining visas and simplifying residence rules for people who can influence their compatriots in their country.
Entire sectors of Russian and Belarusian civil society find refuge in the EU during this unstable period: activists, journalists, educators, human rights defenders. EU countries have become the main base of the Belarusian opposition leadership and the main strategists of the Navalny movement.
Major Russian-language media, such as Meduza, and educational institutions, such as the predominantly Belarusian European University of Humanities in Vilnius, operate from the Baltic States. The new Free Russian University, based in Riga, has a stellar lineup of leading Russian scholars offering free online courses to anyone who applies. The Moscow School of Political Studies – a key institution that has trained political and social leaders for 30 years – was also forced to move to Latvia after being proclaimed both a foreign agent and an undesirable organization in Russia.
The EU has a unique opportunity to play a key role in educating 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 side of society in both countries and working with people like Protasevich and Navalny to build a common European future, the EU will do more to end dictatorships than any number of sanctions ever can. to offer.