BRUSSELS – When authorities in Belarus diverted a Ryanair passenger jet to Minsk last month to arrest a dissident journalist who was aboard, their goal may have been to silence a troublesome government critic and send a message to others like him.
Instead, believes opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, it was a panicked miscalculation by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko that has galvanized the West against him.
“It was really a mistake,” Tsikhanouskaya said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The regime never crossed this red line before, of interfering in a European area. This hijacking touched all the European leaders because their citizens were on this flight.”
The European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada joined together Monday to impose sanctions on several Belarus officials and organizations in response to the May 23 diversion of Ryanair flight, which was traveling from Greece to Lithuania but was forced to land in Minsk. European officials, who likened the diversion to air piracy, also banned Belarus airlines from EU skies and airports.
Lukashenko won a sixth term as president in an Aug. 9, 2020, election that the EU refuses to recognize as legitimate. The disputed election touched off months of mass demonstrations in Belarus, including some that drew as many as 200,000 people. Authorities there also began a harsh crackdown on protesters, and human rights officials say tens of thousands have been detained, with many brutally beaten by security forces.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said EU countries thought for months that it still might be possible to reason with Lukashenko — until the flight diversion.
“The mood is different now,” Landsbergis said.
Tsikhanouskaya was a candidate in the election, running in place of her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a popular opposition figure who had hoped to stand against Lukashenko but was arrested in May 2020.
A day after the vote, Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee the country to neighboring Lithuania, where the 38-year-old political novice lives in exile with her children and has worked to rally European countries against Lukashenko.
“The regime is so frightened by the unity of Belarusians, by the unity of the European Union, the U.S.A., about this situation in Belarus that they stopped to think strategically. They started to think emotionally,” Tsikhanouskaya told AP.
On Thursday, her husband's trial is scheduled to begin in the city of Homel on charges of violating public order, inciting hatred and plotting mass disturbances — accusations he rejects. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
“The trial will be closed. The trial will be not in the court, it will be right in the prison. Lawyers will not have an opportunity to tell us what is going on,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
She expects it to last a month or two, and is not optimistic about the outcome.
“We understand that the trial will not be lawful, will not be honest, will not be fair. In reality, judges can write any number of years in prison,” she said.
For Tsikhanouskaya, it’s yet another test of her ability as an accidental politician to avoid putting her own feelings for her husband above those of the many Belarusians who have been jailed for opposing the government.
“He’s my beloved. I’m thinking about him most of all, because I’m talking about him with my children. I have every day to explain to them where their Daddy is, how he is feeling,” she said. “I assure them that he will come back soon.”
She must “separate all those feelings from political duties, because your political duty is to release all of them,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
“This is your personal pain. You can cry into your pillow in the evening. But just imagine in what conditions those people are in, what conditions my husband is (in) — without light, without information, without the normal conditions of life. Of course, it’s awful," she said. "But again, it gives me strength not to stop, not to think about myself.”
Since he was pulled off the Ryanair flight in Minsk, Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich has been paraded on state TV, tearfully apologizing for his actions and praising Lukashenko.
His parents, members of the opposition and others in the West believe he spoke under duress, with some saying there were signs he was beaten — a warning that no regime opponent can ignore.
Pratasevich’s friends say the 26-year-old journalist, who left his homeland in 2019, believed he was being spied upon by Belarusian authorities before his May 23 arrest. This probably is true for many other political activists from Belarus, said Tsikhanouskaya, who a week earlier had flown Ryanair from Greece to Lithuania, just like Pratasevich.
As she travels Europe to raise awareness about Belarus, she feels “more or less in safeness.”
“People on the ground (in Belarus), they don’t have this protection of laws that the European Union has,” she said.
Beyond the immediate fate of Pratasevich, her husband Siarhei and others like them, difficult times lie ahead for her country, Tsikhanouskaya said.
“This crisis is deepening,” she said.
If the authorities in Minsk really cared about people “they would start dialogue with Belarusians, they would release political prisoners, and solve this crisis in a civilized way," she added. "I imagine new elections this fall. This is our aim.”
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed.