Two young people in their enemies’ clutches. In two videos, each 30 seconds long, they introduce themselves and their offenses. Roman Protasevich, 26 years old, looks directly into the camera, speaking loudly and clearly. “I continue cooperating with investigators and am confessing to having organized mass unrest in the city of Minsk,” he says. His girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, allows her gaze to wander around the room. She barely moves her lips. “I am also the editor of the Telegram channel Black Book of Belarus that published personal information about employees of the Interior Ministry,” she says.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 22/2021 (May 29, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.
These two young people are the spoils dictator Alexander Lukashenko can show following the forced rerouting of Ryanair Flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius last Sunday. Lukashenko was willing to risk a worldwide outcry to get his hands on Protasevich and Sapega. Greece’s foreign minister called the incident an “act of state air piracy.” Poland’s prime minister decried what he called an “unprecedented act of state terrorism.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for his part, called for an independent international investigation.
By targeting air traffic flying between the capitals of two European Union member states, Lukashenko has isolated his country even further than it already was. European airlines are no longer landing in Minsk and are avoiding the airspace over Belarus. The national airline Belavia, furthermore, is no longer allowed to fly to many destinations in Europe. Neighboring Ukraine has stopped all air traffic with Belarus.
Brussels is now considering implementing sanctions against entire sectors of the Belarusian economy – measures that would affect the export of petroleum products and potash fertilizer as well as the financial system. Such restrictions would hit Lukashenko’s regime much harder than any air-space restrictions.
Lukashenko has clung to power in Belarus for 27 years now – longer than Protasevich and Sapega have been alive. After protests last summer, his regime brought quiet to the country with an iron fist. But now we are seeing that it isn’t enough for Lukashenko to spread fear through Belarus alone – he wants to extend his shadow across Europe. He also doesn’t appear to fear sanctions, believing himself to be under the protective wing of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Is he driven by pure vindictiveness, or is there a logic behind his moves? And why did he target Protasevich and Sapega?
One evening in early May, Protasevich visited the apartment of a colleague in Vilnius. The two spoke about the fact that he badly needed a vacation. Protasevich is a journalist and activist, and he has been running the opposition channel @belamova on the messenger service Telegram since January. The channel disseminates political news from Belarus, but in Belarus, the word politics is largely synonymous with repression. The wave of protests in the summer of 2020, which saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets again dictator Lukashenko, has since been crushed, followed by waves of intimidation in an effort. Protasevich’s work has been grueling, oppressive and ceaseless.
“He was burnt out after all the bad news and dashed hopes,” says Protasevich’s former girlfriend Ekaterina Yerusalimskaya. “As recently as the summer of 2020, he thought we were on the right track, that the regime would soon be finished.” He asked a colleague whether he should take one or two weeks of vacation. “Take a week and work a week remotely,” the colleague answered.
Vilnius, with its old town and baroque churches, is more than just the capital of Lithuania: It’s also the capital of Belarusian exiles. Protasevich is one of tens of thousands of Belarusians living in the city. The most prominent among them is opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was Lukashenko’s rival in the presidential election in August before the dictator falsified the results and literally had her thrown out of the country. Tikhanovskaya’s staff are located in a glass office tower on the outskirts of the city center. Staff from Protasevich’s Telegram channel @belamova also work there. The Belarusian exile world is quite small.
An entire university in exile has even been established in the former Augustinian monastery in the city center: The European Humanities University was forced to flee from Minsk to Vilnius back in 2004. Sofia Sapega is studying law here. She has a Russian passport but grew up in Belarus, and has just finished her master’s thesis in Vilnius, titled, “The Right to Marriage: Universal and Regional Standards of International Law.” She is scheduled to defend her thesis in early June.
One of her lecturers describes Sapega as being “reserved, not very emotional and a very good student.” The lecturer says Sapega was said to be interested in art and history – and “definitely not politics.” That, the lecturer says, was her reputation.
Sapega and Protasevich first met in a bar in Vilnius in 2020 – a student with little interest in politics and an activist known to all. Protasevich had just moved to Vilnius. He had previously run Nexta, the opposition’s largest and most radical Telegram channel, out of Warsaw. He was considered an enemy of state back home in Belarus.
Sofia’s mother Anna Dudich, who lives in Minsk, never met Protasevich, “but of course I know who he is,” she says by phone. “I told her to be careful several times. She then answered: Mom, I’m in love.”
The trip to Greece was their first vacation together.
The photos Protasevich tweeted from his vacation are unusual. They show Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at the Acropolis, her hair flowing. Tikhanovskaya in front of the Parthenon. Tikhanovskaya laying flowers. She was on a working visit to Greece while Protasevich was there on vacation. Nevertheless, he spent a few days working for her as a photographer, and his photos appeared on her internet channels.
He also accompanied her to the Delphi Economic Forum, a conference where she made one of her few public appearances. Tikhanovskaya spoke in English. “I won the election,” she said confidently. It was a bold claim – after rigged elections, who can know what the true outcome would have been? But her level of professionalism was impressive given that she has only been in politics for a year.
In response to a question submitted by DER SPIEGEL, Tikhanovskaya wrote that Protasevich was “not a member of her office” and that he had “not accompanied her on her trip to Athens. We flew in separate planes.” But she says she does know him and describes him as “a good-natured man, full of life.”
On May 16, Tikhanovskaya returned to Vilnius on a direct Ryanair flight. That flight also passed over Belarusian airspace, as did the plane carrying Protasevich and Sapega did a week later. But Tikhanovskaya’s flight was not diverted, Lukashenko sent no fighter jet, nor did Minsk air traffic controllers warn of alleged bombs.
Protasevich and Sapega both stayed on in Greece for another week. “Sofia planned this trip herself,” her mother says. “She was thinking about where she wanted to stay and what sights they wanted to see. It had nothing to do with Tikhanovskaya’s trip. It was pure coincidence that she also happened to be there.”
On May 23, exactly a week after Tikhanovskaya’s flight, Protasevich and Sapega were standing at the gate for the return Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius. “An interesting couple,” fellow traveler Andrius Elsbergas thought to himself.
Protasevich, for his part, had his doubts about the man standing in line behind him. In a group chat with his colleagues, he wrote: “LOL, I must have just been spied on by a member of the KGB. Even tried to photograph my travel documents.” He was apparently worried enough to describe the man in detail: middle-aged, good posture, thinning hair, dressed in a T-shirt and light-colored pants, holding a leather bag. The man even attempted to take a picture of Raman’s electronic boarding pass, according to Protasevich. “And the funny thing is that he was next in line for boarding and just turned around and walked away. Already at the gate.”
The Greek authorities have analyzed images from the cameras at the airport. But they have so far been unable to identify any suspicious person nor suspicious activity related to Protasevich. The Greek intelligence service EYP has come under heavy criticism since the kidnapping. But Protasevich’s name wasn’t on the list of delegation members, intelligence officials say. No application was filed for his protection, and no one informed the security authorities that Tikhanovskaya’s photographer would be remaining in the country.
At 10:30 a.m. local time, the Boeing 737 took off from Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens. The plane flew north over Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Belarus. Most of the 126 passengers on board were Lithuanian.
At 1 p.m., the pilot announced a course change. He told the passengers that he had been advised to fly to Minsk. What he didn’t say was that air traffic controllers in Minsk had warned of an emailed bomb threat received by the Minsk airport. Everything about the warning seemed strange. Why, for example, should the plane have landed in Minsk when the airport in Vilnius was much closer? And why had the threat been sent to Minsk, where the plane was never even supposed to land?
Protasevich immediately sensed the danger he was in. “Raman stood up, looking completely shaken and terrified. The crew instructed everyone to sit down, but he said out loud: ‘We have a political refugee on board, we can’t land in Minsk!'” That’s how Andrius Elsbergas, who was sitting a few rows ahead of Protasevich, recalls it.
Protasevich asked his girlfriend to sit further back in the cabin. He put his jacket on and pulled a baseball cap over his head, recalls Saulius Danauskas, another passenger on the plane. Despite everything, Protasevich apparently clung to the hope that he might remain unrecognized.
After landing in Minsk, dogs sniffed the passengers and their luggage. In the terminal, fellow passengers lost sight of Protasevich and Sapega. Sapega sent a message to her mom on WhatsApp. “Mama,” it says. That’s all she managed to type.
Several explanation emanated from Minsk in the following days as to why the plane allegedly had to be diverted, but each was more absurd than the last. On Monday, an official at the Transportation Ministry in Minsk read the alleged bomb threat. “We, soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip,” it purportedly stated. “We know that the participants of the Delphi Economic Forum are returning home aboard flight FR4978.” It was a reference to the forum where Tikhanovskaya and Protasevich had been. Hamas immediately distanced itself from the email.
An internal document also refutes the account given by Minsk. The email with the bomb threat didn’t arrive on a Minsk airport account until 12:57 p.m. on Sunday, nearly half an hour after Belarusian air traffic controllers alerted the Ryanair pilot about the alleged explosive device on board. The email was leaked to the London-based Dossier Center, and DER SPIEGEL was able to view it.
On Wednesday, Lukashenko himself showed how little he cares about the credibility of the justification given. “Hamas or not Hamas, that doesn’t matter today,” he said. He said bomb threats from abroad had been arriving in his country like a “waterfall.” Lukashenko even admitted, albeit in the subjunctive, that Pratasevic’s presence would be sufficient reason for him to stop international air traffic. “Whether there was a bomb on board or not, if I had been informed that there was a terrorist on the plane, I would immediately have given the order to land the plane.”
In fact, Protasevich has been on a list of terror suspects maintained by the Belarusian KGB since November 2020. “I have officially been declared a terrorist. This is no joke,” he tweeted at the time. He is number 726 on the list, just two places ahead of him is a Syrian commander of the Nusra Front. Tikhanovskaya has since been added to the list. It starkly reveals the logic of the Lukashenko regime: There are no political opponents, just enemies and terrorists.
The regime has radicalized itself, just as it radicalized Roman Protasevich before. Protasevich comes from a Minsk family that had long been on the side of the regime, with his father a career military officer and his mother a lecturer at a military academy. He attended an elite science school in Minsk, took part in physics competitions, won a presidential scholarship and was interested in space.
The first time he was arrested at protests in 2011, he was outraged by the police violence. He became politically active and was expelled first from school and later from the university’s journalism faculty. In 2014, he was on the Maidan, Ukraine’s Independence Square in Kyiv. In 2015, he worked as a photographer and freelance journalist on the front lines in embattled eastern Ukraine. There are also reports that he fought in the controversial volunteer “Azov” battalion led by right-wing extremists. But the group’s spokesman from that time, Stepan Golovko, disputes this. He claims that Protasevich had been there as a journalist and that he had never seen him with a gun.
Protasevich fled Belarus in 2019. In the eyes of the regime, his worst offense was his involvement in the opposition Telegram channel Nexta, which would become a driving force behind the street protests in 2020. Born out of a YouTube channel operated from exile in Warsaw, Nexta is the best example of the radicalization of rhetoric – even on the part of the opposition – and of the impact a single Telegram channel can have.
When residents of Minsk took to the streets in August 2020 to protest against Lukashenko’s rigged re-election, the movement lacked any leadership. The regime blocked opposition websites. By doing so, though, it unintentionally strengthened the oppositions’ Telegram channels, which it can’t block.
Sapega sent a message to her mom using WhatsApp. It contains the word “Mama.” That was all she managed to type.
Nexta’s readership grew to more than 2 million, out of a population of 9.5 million. The channel sends out images and messages in a rapid clip, cheering protesters on, providing instructions on where people should move in the crowd and how to protect themselves. It’s activism and not journalism. For Nexta, the opponents are “fascists,” “punishment squads” or “occupiers.”
“We’re just the voice of the people,” says Stepan Putilo, the founder and operator of Nexta. “And they call Lukashenko’s people occupiers.” As the channel has grown, there have been disagreements between Putilo and Protasevich over its direction, with Protasevich wanting to return to a more journalistic approach. In September 2020, he left Nexta and, shortly thereafter, Poland, which declined to grant him political asylum because he lacked documentation.
“What is currently happening in Belarus hasn’t been seen in Europe in 40 years,” says Pavel Latushko, a former Belarusian diplomat and cultural minister who, in addition to Tikhanovskaya, is one of the best-known figures in exile. He claims that 35,000 people have been detained or arrested and that 421 political prisoners are being held in jail. In that sense, he says, the action taken against Protasevich was “absolutely logical.” “For nine months, in all the European capitals, we were saying: Lukashenko doesn’t want dialogue – he will destroy his opponents. We received support in the form of words, but nobody did anything,” Latushko says.
There were warnings issued to the opposition. In April, the Belarusian interior minister announced a “purge” of enemies abroad, as well. A senior member of parliament in Minsk also wrote on Facebook this week that Latushko would be the next to be taken to Belarus “in a trunk” to receive the penalty he deserved.
Lukashenko’s top priority is to punish all his opponents, says political analyst Artyom Shraibman. “And the interception of the plane fits exactly into this logic.” He says Lukashenko long ago stopped caring whether his actions threaten his reputation. “If he had known about Tikhanovskaya’s flight soon enough, he probably would have intercepted her plane as well,” he says.
Fear has now begun spreading in Vilnius, where prominent exiled activists are seeking police protection and Belarusian lecturers are no longer leaving the city out of fear of persecution.
The upshot is that Protasevich and Sapega have become the victims of a large-scale retaliation campaign. Although Sapega hasn’t been able to see a lawyer, she has received a visit from the Russian consul. “He said she was dejected,” her mother says. Still, Sapega’s mother, who lives in Minsk, was able to provide warm clothes for her daughter at the KGB detention center.
Protasevich’s parents, on the other hand, left the country last summer. They now live in safety in Poland and they fear for their son’s health. Protasevich’s lawyer was allowed to see him for the first time on Thursday. Speaking to journalists, she said he was “in good spirits, positive and cheerful.”
With additional reporting by Alexander Chernyshev, Kateryna Lutska, Marta Solarz