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What’s happening in Belarus? Here are the basics

  • >> Daniel Victor, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-05-27 10:54:27 BdST

A woman takes part in a protest against the detention of Belarusian journalist and blogger, Roman Protasevich, who was detained on a Ryanair plane that was en route from Athens to Vilnius and forced to land in Minsk, during the 2021 UEFA Europa League finals outside the Polsat Plus Arena Gdansk, in Gdansk, Poland, May 26, 2021. REUTERS/Kamil Jasinski

The forced landing of a commercial flight Sunday, seen by several countries as a state hijacking, has put Belarus and its strongman president, Alexander Lukashenko, in a new global spotlight.

It came less than a year after Belarusians were met with a violent police crackdown when they protested the results of an election that many Western governments derided as a sham.

The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk using the ruse of a bomb threat, according to Western governments, with the goal of detaining Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist. In a video released by the government, he confessed to taking part in organising “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.

For those trying to catch up, here is the background that will help you follow along with the ongoing story.

Who is the president of Belarus?

Lukashenko was first elected in 1994. Outside observers believed it was a free and fair election, and he initially had wide support. But it is difficult to tell precisely how popular he is now, since independent polling is mostly illegal and government polls are typically kept secret.

Many international observers believe recent elections have been blatantly rigged. In last year’s August elections, the government announced that Lukashenko had won 80% of the vote, widely considered an improbable result amid a faltering economy and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. Several opposition candidates had been jailed or exiled, and international election observers were barred.

In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Belarus “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe,” and relations with the United States and several other Western countries are strained. The crisis has tested Lukashenko’s relationship with Russia, which has offered strong support since last year’s election but is a complicated ally.

Who is Protasevich, the detained journalist?

Protasevich is a co-founder and former editor of the Nexta channel on Telegram, a messaging app that has been used by protesters to share information and organise demonstrations.

After years as a freelance reporter, he fled to Lithuania in 2019, believing himself safe in the European Union. He became a key opposition figure working for Nexta, practicing a form of journalism blended with activism. He became more involved with organising street protests after the August election.

In November, prosecutors in Belarus charged him under a law that bans organising protests that violate “social order,” and security services put him on a list of accused terrorists, a capital offense.

What happened in the protests?

In the three nights that followed the vote Aug 9, police aggressively crushed largely peaceful demonstrations with tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and batons. Internet access and mobile phone service were largely shut down.

A week after the vote, tens of thousands of protesters — some estimates put the crowd at 200,000 — converged in the centre of Minsk, the capital, and called on Lukashenko to step down. Thousands of protesters were arrested, and videos of officers beating civilians stoked anger. Some protesters threw rocks at police officers.

Demonstrations continued for months but did not succeed in forcing concessions from Lukashenko. In February, two journalists were sentenced to two years in prison for reporting from a demonstration. On Monday, Lukashenko signed a law imposing harsh new restrictions on the news media.

Biden called the arrest ‘shameful.’

The Greek Foreign Ministry called the arrest of Protasevich a “state hijacking.” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland called it an “act of state terrorism.”

President Joe Biden called for the release of Protasevich, saying his arrest and the video he made under apparent duress were “shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.”

Belarus was effectively isolated, with airplanes no longer flying to Belarus or in its airspace. The European Union called for sanctions, and Biden directed his team “to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company