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Europe's last dictator has a YouTube problem

Commentary: Roman Protasevich criticized Belarus' regime through YouTube and Telegram -- until the country's president forced down a plane to silence him.

Daniel Van Boom Senior Writer
Daniel Van Boom is an award-winning Senior Writer based in Sydney, Australia. Daniel Van Boom covers cryptocurrency, NFTs, culture and global issues. When not writing, Daniel Van Boom practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reads as much as he can, and speaks about himself in the third person.
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Daniel Van Boom
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Alexander Lukashenko and Vladamir Putin, presidents of Belarus and Russia.   

Sasha Mordovets/Getty

If you're a dictator, what you don't want is the world watching your every move -- but that's the attention Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko cast on himself Sunday.

Dubbed Europe's last dictator, Lukashenko earned Belarus a fresh round of local protests and international sanctions when he used military force to ground a RyanAir plane flying between Greece and Lithuania on Sunday. As the plane flew over Belarus' airspace, Lukashenko's government sent a MiG fighter jet to ground the flight full of civilian passengers. 

And what for? To take down a journalist and his Telegram group.

Police boarded the plane and arrested Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist who runs Nexta, an anti-establishment news channel that operates mostly on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, where it has over 1.2 million subscribers in a country of about 9 million. 

Online platforms are rattling restrictive regimes in Europe's east: In the aligned nations of Belarus and Russia, heroic activists like Protasevich and imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny use the twin powers of Telegram and YouTube to expose corruption and governmental malignancy. 

That these dissidents are being targeted for elimination and imprisonment now, after years in the public eye, is a sign of how threatening their online presence has become to Lukashenko and Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

"These guys have really figured out how to use the internet to counter these regimes in the last few years," William Partlett, a professor at Melbourne Law School who researches post-Soviet societies, told me on a recent phone call. Because state TV is so controlled, creative and defiant young people flocked to YouTube and Telegram, where they can create their own news channels. 

While the Russian and especially Belarusian governments often target specific journalists or publications, Partlett says internet freedom has been strong in Belarus and Russia compared to a country like China. 

But now that resistance movements are being so effectively built using internet platforms, that freedom might soon become more compromised.

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A RyanAir flight headed for Lithuania was diverted to Belarus. Belarus claimed there was a bomb threat on board, and had a MiG jet escort the flight to Minsk airport.

NurPhoto/Getty

Hanging by a thread

Anyone living in Belarus under the age of 27 has only ever known one president. The country, also known as "White Russia," held its first free elections in 1994. They were won by Lukashenko, and he's been in power ever since. 

For this reason, and for his autocratic ways, Lukashenko is known as Europe's last dictator. 

Lukashenko "won" the last election held in the country, officially scoring 80% of the polls. The European Union rejects this result, and observers believe the election was actually won by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a school teacher and wife of a jailed opposition leader. 

What followed were the biggest and most sustained protests the country has seen since independence, involving hundreds of thousands of people. Lukashenko met these democratic spasms with autocratic force: Over 30,000 protesters have been detained, reports The Economist, and over 4,000 say they've been tortured. Some have died.

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Protests over last year's election were the biggest Belarus has seen since independence. 

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In this environment, Nexta, created by Protasevich six years go, flourished. Its YouTube channel, with over 600,000 subscribers, circulates news. Its Telegram group spreads videos of police brutality against demonstrators and serves as an organizing ground for future protests.

Several Belarusian journalists and internet channels have been targeted by the regime ever since, often with trumped-up charges of tax evasion or similar crimes. The case of Protasevich, who fled Belarus in 2019 and has since been branded a terrorist, shows that leaving the country isn't enough to keep dissidents safe. 

Similar channels have frustrated Russia's government. Alexei Navalny, Russia's most prominent opposition leader, first gained traction a decade ago by blogging about Kremlin corruption. In recent years, his team set up a network of YouTube channels, spread across each region of the massive country, that countered state TV. His goal has been to unseat the Kremlin candidates in regional elections, encouraging liberal Russians to vote for whoever has the best chance to displace elected officials from Putin's United Russia party. Telegram groups are used to help organize rallies and demonstrations. 

The strategy proved successful in 2018, when the United Russia party lost three gubernatorial seats.

Those in power have taken notice.

After years of suppressing Navalny -- barring him from elections, having him arrested and charging him as a foreign agent -- Putin in 2020 apparently decided to eliminate him. Navalny's underpants were reportedly smeared with a toxic agent as he traveled from Siberia to Moscow. It's indicative of a broader clampdown on freedoms, both on and offline, that's happening in the two nations. (Putin denies being behind the poisoning.)

"Navalny existed and made all these videos for years and years, but something is happening now. Now they have him in prison. They've forced down a jet to get Protasevich," Partlett explained. "They're starting to lose the internet narrative." 

Despite his subsequent imprisonment, Navalny has shown that it's possible to rile regimes even from a jail cell. He regularly posts to Instagram through his lawyer, and shortly after his imprisonment his team posted a two-hour documentary on YouTube documenting a $1.5 billion mansion owned by Putin, intending to highlight the endemic graft of Russian politics. It's been viewed 116 million times.

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Recent protests against Lukashenko in neighboring Poland. NEXTA's headquarters are in Warsaw. 

Nur Photo/Getty

No firewall 

What happens next? 

Lukashenko has been met with almost universal admonishment from world leaders. The EU will ramp up sanctions, initially put in place after last year's fraudulent election, and Ukraine has banned energy imports

"The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences," warned EU President Ursula von der Leyen. "Those responsible for the RyanAir hijacking must be sanctioned." 

The key outlier is Russia. "It's an independent state," said Leonid Kalashnikov, a senior member of Russia's State Duma parliament, according to state media. "If they see a threat to their security, then they must fight this threat."

As is so often the case, experts worry that the sanctions are likely to hurt Belarus' citizens more than its leader. A new rule, for instance, bars Belarus' state airliner from flying to any European airport, making it harder for citizens to escape the regime.

Just as worrying is what this means for the limited internet freedoms enjoyed in Belarus and Russia. 

Russia has flirted with creating its own internet, separating itself from the world in the same vein as China, but little has come of that idea. It banned Telegram in 2018, but inadvertently blocked thousands of other websites before deciding to lift the ban, indicating that the gargantuan task of creating its own internet is out of reach.

So without the ability for widespread new-era censorship, Belarus' leader is resorting to age-old suppression tactics. The power of tools like YouTube and Telegram is evident in the desperation move of hijacking an international flight. In trying to block news on the internet, Lukashenko got attention from the world.