This article originally appeared on L’Antidiplomatico.
The story of the Ryanair airliner bound for Vilnius, which landed in Minsk due to a bomb scare and the subsequent arrest of the opponent who was traveling there, Romat Protasevich, caused a lot of clamour. It had never happened in the past for similar issues.
Who is Roman Protasevich?
The Belarusian opponent arrested on board the flight to Vilnius is a journalist, at least officially. Publisher of Belamova, a Telegram channel founded last year by Igor Losik, a consultant for the US state media organization Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Belamova was outlawed last month after a court in the eastern Belarusian city of Gomel declared it an “extremist” organization. Losik was arrested last summer in his hometown of Baranavichy, and is currently in prison.
Romat Protasevich previously worked directly for the Washington-funded media, which is known to support US foreign policy goals in Central and Eastern Europe.
Last year, Protasevich was employed as editor-in-chief of the popular opposition channel Telegram Nexta Live, based in Poland, which the government had previously declared extremist. In November he was placed on an international wanted list by the Belarusian authorities, accused of having helped organize anti-government protests after last summer’s presidential elections and of “inciting social hostility and discord”.
But the activity of the Belarusian opponent is not limited to the media field. According to Foia Research, “Roman Protasevich is one of the key agents for regime change in the Belarusian color revolution of 2020. His name appeared in the context of a Telegram channel called Nexta which overnight became the voice of the Belarusian opposition”.
Protasevich appears to have played a frontline role in the notorious Maidan events: “Protasevich participated in the Maidan protests in Kiev 2013/2014, as shown in a photo on Facebook, where, dressed in the flag of a Belarusian people’s state, he is taking part in the destruction of a statue of Lenin”.
Furthermore, Foia Research highlights Protasevich’s neo-Nazi and anti-communist background. He is a sympathizer of the Pahonia Detachment, a Belarusian militia that fought alongside the neo-Nazi Azov battalion in the post-Maidan Ukrainian civil war.
The group defines itself on the Twitter social network as “a non-governmental organization that helps Belarusian volunteers in Ukraine”.
In 2017, we find the opposition journalist busy documenting the protests in Belarus, with great “enthusiasm”, Foia highlights.
We then find him in Washington in April 2018. On 23 April 2018 he publishes a photo that reads: “The most important week of my life begins”. On the same day, some images portray him inside the United States Department of State, and he says: “I have never had so many important and interesting meetings in my life. Tired but very happy ”.
According to his Facebook page, he started working for USAID-supported radio in Belarus Euroradio.fm on August 31, 2018, and then announced the end of this collaboration in December 2019.
In February 2020, Protasevich announces that he has started working for Nexta Telegram on the Polish-Belarusian channel Belsat. According to the BBC, Nexta started as an anti-Lukashenko YouTube channel created by a Belarusian teenager, Stepan Putila, also known as Stepan Svetlov, in 2015. According to Strana.ua: “In Belarus, the channel has become famous for information privileges of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic. “Again the BBC writes that the popular Telegram messaging app called Nexta … has managed to bypass many of the restrictions.” Foia Research believes that Nexta has been successful because the hitherto virtually unknown channel is directed and operated from abroad, notably from Poland, where Protasevich and Putila reside.