He was practically unknown outside Belarusuntil the Ryanair commercial plane in which he was a passenger was abruptly diverted from a fighter plane and had to land in the state capital Minsk on Sunday.
Now, Roman Protasevich has made headlines around the world and put the Eastern European country back in the spotlight, which routinely hosted anti-government demonstrations after the controversial presidential election in August before being canceled late last year.
Protasevich, 26, was already a major figure to millions in Belarus after being known as the editor-in-chief of an anti-government channel – on the secure messaging app Telegram – known as Nexta, which means “someone” in Belarusian. It became crucial for reporting and organizing protests against President Alexander Lukashenko and his government.
“He was a journalist, one of many, but the Belarusian uprising of 2020 made him one of the best media activists in the country,” said Artyom Shraibman, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center in Minsk.
Belarus added Protasevich’s name to a list of “people involved in terrorist activities,” he added, “and that made him such a sought-after target.”
Protasevich was on board the commercial Ryanair passenger plane from Greece to Lithuania When a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter plane was nearby and Belarusian authorities reported a false bomb alarm to force the plane to land.
Witnesses said Protasevich was extremely distressed when he realized he was going to be arrested along with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Both have since appeared in videos criticized as being scripted by their relatives.
Condemnation of Belarus’ decision to ground the plane and arrest the couple was quick. President Joe Biden called the incident “outrageous” in a statement on Monday when Great Britain, the European UnionNATO and the United Nations also lined up to declare action in the sky.
Lukashenko defended the decision on Wednesday, telling parliament that the bomb threat did not come from Belarus while finding the trajectory was near a nuclear power plant.
“Do we want another Chernobyl?” He said, “How would the United States react in such a situation?”
The idea that the fighter jet forced the plane to land was an “absolute lie,” he added, before accusing European leaders of waging a “hybrid war” against Belarus using the incident to impose new sanctions to impose.
Lukashenko – often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” – has held on to power, which he denies, despite mass protests against the presidential elections last August, which his opponents and international observers described as manipulated.
The protests that followed were met with crackdowns by the government against opposition activists and protesters, some of whom were “tortured or ill-treated” in detention, according to human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the protesters themselves.
Protasevich fled to Poland in 2019 and lived there in exile.
Working with a small team, his Nexta channel has shared videos of police brutality and led demonstrations in a country where opposition media are suppressed by the government.
This information was a frequent source of international media, which struggled to cover the protests because Belarusian authorities restricted their entry into the country and the station soon gained more than 1 million subscribers.
Protasevich told Russia’s independent television broadcaster Rain in August that he sees himself as a “mouthpiece” for everyone who is dissatisfied with the Lukashenko regime.
Nexta is “more important than all opposition politicians put together,” said Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council for international relations.
“This channel essentially coordinated the protests,” said Preiherman. “This fact alone made them a target and an enemy in the eyes of the Belarusian authorities.”
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Lukashenko’s government named Nexta an “extremist” in October and the following month. Protasevich was accused of instigating mass riots, disrupting social order and inciting social hatred, and was included on the list of “persons involved in terrorist activities”.
A longtime critic, he participated in anti-government protests in 2011 while he was still in high school. He studied journalism at the Belarusian State University in Minsk and before working as a freelance editor at Nexta.
He got into journalism because he “can help people,” he said, adding that he was a freelance journalist covering the conflict between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country.
According to some observers, including Jason Bush, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group’s political risk advisory group, Lukashenko made a mistake by arresting “a relatively inconspicuous journalist” and receiving international conviction in return.
“It looks like the costs far outweigh the political benefits,” he said. “It looks like the short-sighted thinking of Lukashenko’s security services.”
However, Shraibman said it appeared that the arrest was motivated not by a grand strategy – but by revenge.
“They just wanted to punish the person they consider a terrorist – that’s it,” Shraibman said. “They only want revenge. All other considerations are secondary.”