On May 23, Roman Protasevich was detained by authorities in the eastern European country Belarus after the plane he was riding made an emergency landing in Minsk. Protasevich’s detention set off howls of protest from governments and corporate media in the U.S. and European Union, as well as threats of sanctions and a ban on air travel to or from Belarus.
The arrest of Protasevich, who was earlier declared a terrorist threat by the Belarus government, is being presented as “Exhibit A” of President Alexander Lukashenko’s abuse of human rights, and in favor of regime change by the pro-Western opposition headed by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
The EU has announced a $3-billion “bailout” plan for Belarus if the opposition successfully topples Lukashenko’s government.
A few key facts are missing from the Western powers’ narrative.
Who gets to divert flights?
First, the diversion of flights and detention of air passengers is hardly unprecedented.
Recall, for example, that a plane from Moscow carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales over EU airspace in 2013 was refused the right to refuel, threatening the life of Morales and other passengers, and was then grounded on U.S. orders in Vienna, where the plane was searched by Austrian authorities. Morales — a head of state — was detained for 14 hours.
Supposedly Washington thought that “wanted” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden might be aboard the plane. But the real reason was to threaten Morales and other anti-imperialist leaders by showing them that the U.S. could murder or capture them at its whim.
In 2016, a Belarusian flight over Ukraine was forced to turn back because Kiev’s right-wing government suspected anti-fascist supporters of Donetsk and Lugansk might be aboard. One person was detained before the plane was allowed to leave.
What is different in the Protasevich case — and objectionable to the imperialists — is that it was not done by them or a regime loyal to them.
Coup attempt thwarted
Second, just six weeks ago, in mid-April, a violent coup attempt against the government of Belarus was thwarted by Russian and Belarus intelligence services.
Two people were arrested in Moscow after opposition figures were captured on video plotting to murder President Lukashenko and his sons, and kill or detain 30 top officials. One of those arrested was a U.S. citizen. The coup attempt received virtually no coverage in the U.S. media.
The plot came after the failure of protests dominated by far-right and pro-Western forces last year to unseat Lukashenko’s government. (Read Struggle-La Lucha’s coverage here.)
The Western powers’ objections to Lukashenko’s government have nothing to do with “human rights,” but rather that this former Soviet republic has retained some of the social gains of the socialist period. Belarus has not privatized fast enough and has maintained too much independence for their liking.
Who is Roman Protasevich?
Third, and perhaps most damningly, there is Roman Protasevich himself.
Held up as an “independent journalist” by the West, he is in fact a known fascist who participated in the 2014 coup in neighboring Ukraine and aligned himself with neo-Nazis there waging war on the independent republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. He also has strong ties to the U.S. government.
Here’s how Ukrainian anti-fascist activist and journalist Dmitri Kovalevich describes this character:
“In 2014 Roman Protasevich was one of the active participants of Euromaidan in Kiev. He participated in toppling Lenin’s monument in Kiev along with the Ukrainian far-right and posed with the toppled statue.
“In 2015 [Protasevich] volunteered with Azov – a neo-Nazi Ukrainian regiment. He was trained there and fought against the Donbass republics. [He] was promoted to deputy commander of an Azov detachment. Then helped Azov to receive sponsorship from the U.S. and Poland.
“Now the team of imprisoned Russian liberal Alexei Navalny also supports Protasevich, claiming that there was nothing wrong in his fighting in the ranks of Azov because he ‘helped to restore Ukraine’s control over its territory.’
“In other words, we see in this case a ‘lovely’ company: Western powers, Belarus and Russian liberal opposition, and Ukraine’s armed white supremacists.”
Protasevich’s affiliation with the ultra-right and servility to the Western imperialists is well-documented, including much photographic evidence of his open flaunting of neo-Nazi ties.
A U.S.-EU provocation?
The Western media and governments claim that the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land completely on the initiative of the Belarus government. However, there are reasons to question this story.
According to Belarus, the decision to land in Minsk came from the flight crew because of a bomb threat. A Belarus fighter plane was then dispatched to guide the plane into the airport.
No bomb was found aboard the plane. But authorities discovered there was in fact a wanted terrorist suspect aboard — Protasevich — and he was detained.
Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei described the subsequent outcry from Western capitals as a deliberate provocation.
The flight’s city of destination is enough to create suspicions about the U.S.-EU narrative. Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, a NATO member ruled by a fascist-sympathizing government dominated by Washington, as is neighboring Baltic state Latvia.
As if on cue, after Protasevich was detained in Minsk, the mayor of Riga, Latvia’s capital, ordered a display of flags at a international sports event in the city to replace the official red-and-green Belarus flag with the white-and-red “BCBH flag” — the flag of fascist collaborators during the Nazi occupation of Belarus during World War II. This was the flag waved at last year’s anti-government protests.
Outraged Belarus residents quickly organized a rally at the Latvian Embassy in Minsk on May 24. Minsk Pravda correspondent Nadezhda Sablina reported:
“Belarusians ardently expressed their indignation and demanded the embassy staff answer, but they did not come out.
“Among the picket participants were members of the Patriots of Belarus, Belaya Rusi, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, the Communist Party of Belarus, the Liberal Democratic Party, ordinary citizens of our republic, and partisan veterans.
“Participants of the event sang ‘Katyusha’ [an anti-fascist Soviet song] and the anthem of Belarus, chanted ‘Fascism will not pass!’ and ‘Shame!’
“Right there, near the Latvian Embassy, the audience voted to bring the mayor of Latvia to justice.”
Workers and oppressed people here and around the world have good reasons to question the claims of the imperialists — and to support the struggle of people in Belarus to maintain their independence and keep their country from being turned into another weapon for U.S. imperialism.