Belarus has long pursued its president’s critics on the streets, and more recently even in the skies. For 27 years, President Alexander Lukashenko has held onto power in the East European country of 9.3 million people, putting thousands of opponents in jail or forcing them abroad. Riot police and sweeping arrests gradually stamped out large street protests following his disputed election in August 2020 for a sixth term. His main challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighboring Lithuania after the vote. In May 2021, Belarus forced a jet to land and hauled off a journalist, Raman Pratasevich. In August another leading opposition figure, Maria Kalesnikava, appeared in court in one of the highest-profile trials since the protests began.

1. Who is Kalesnikava?

She’s a flute player who became team coordinator for a presidential challenger. When he was jailed, she effectively became a leader of his team and joined forces with Tsikhanouskaya. Along with lawyer and fellow opposition activist Maksim Znak, she faces as much as 12 years in prison at a closed-court hearing on charges of public calls to harm national security, conspiracy to seize power and organizing an extremist group. According to opposition activists and Ukrainian officials, Belarus tried to expel Kalesnikava and two colleagues one night in September 2020. Brought to the frontier by Belarusian security forces around 4 a.m., Kalesnikava tore up her passport and fled her vehicle to prevent agents from forcing her out of the country, according to the colleagues. Lukashenko disputed that account, telling Russian media that Kalesnikava was arrested as the three tried to flee Belarus illegally. At the opening of her trial on Aug. 4, she smiled, danced and made her trademark heart-shape symbol with her hands to reporters from state media as she and Znak stood in the defendants’ cage. She said she’d rejected officials’ attempts to get her to take part in staged interviews with state television or plead for clemency because she’s innocent.

2. Who else has been put on trial?

Belarus’s Supreme Court in July sentenced the former head of a Kremlin-controlled bank who sought to challenge Lukashenko in the 2020 election to 14 years in jail. The court convicted Viktor Babariko, whose campaign Kalesnikava helped run, and imposed fines totaling more than $18 million, according to his press service. The former chief executive officer of Belgazprombank faced charges of bribery, conspiracy and money-laundering, which he denied. Other activists, including Tsikhanouskaya’s husband Siarhei, are also going on trial while many more are kept under investigation in overcrowded remand prisons. Belarusian authorities opened at least 4,600 criminal cases against opponents of Lukashenko.

3. What other things have happened to critics?

Police in Ukraine opened a criminal probe into premeditated murder after finding Belarusian opposition activist Vitaliy Shishov hanged in a Kyiv park on Aug. 3. Shishov, 26, was head of Belarusian House, a group that helped the wave of political emigres from neighboring Belarus, including many opponents of Lukashenko. Police said they were investigating whether Shishov’s death was masked to look like a suicide, as well as other theories. Separately, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter who said she was pressured to leave Tokyo halfway through the games for criticizing sporting officials from her country received a visa to go to Poland for protection. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya had refused to get on a flight after being taken to the airport by Belarusian sports authorities, according to Aliaksandr Apeikin, executive director at the Lithuania-based Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation.

4. What about the jet?

A Ryanair Holdings Plc Boeing Co. 737-800 carrying scores of passengers from Athens to Vilnius on May 23 was diverted to the Belarusian capital under the escort of a Mig-29 fighter jet. Once on the ground in Minsk, authorities arrested Pratasevich, a new media professional, who rose to prominence covering the 2020 protests and Lukashenko’s crackdown. The former editor-in-chief of one of the most popular Telegram news channels in Belarus, Nexta Live, Pratasevich had fled the country by the time the authorities put him on their terrorist list in November.

5. Why is opposition to Lukashenko so strong?

Lukashenko, who’s accustomed to landslide victories, appeared to have taken no chances in the last election by having key challengers detained or kept off the ballot. But Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice and wife of a jailed opposition blogger, was allowed to register. She drew huge crowds at rallies nationwide. So when officials declared Lukashenko had won 80.2% of the vote with just 9.9% in her favor, public anger boiled over at suspected ballot fraud. Discontent with Lukashenko, in office since 1994, has simmered for years as the state-dominated economy stagnates. It intensified with the coronavirus outbreak, after the president rejected lockdown measures to slow the epidemic and dismissed health fears.

6. How has Lukashenko held onto power so long?

After previous elections, Lukashenko easily crushed protests that were generally small, short-lived and confined to the capital. But in 2020, thousands took to the streets nightly in more than 30 towns and cities, defying riot police armed with flash grenades and water cannons and calling for nationwide strikes. More than 6,000 people were detained in the first three nights alone, sparking international condemnation. Facing further sanctions and economic strain, Lukashenko turned to his closest ally, Vladimir Putin. The Russian president offered him loans, energy supplies and, if needed, police support. Putin also backed Lukashenko’s nominal concession on conducting constitutional reform, something the Belarusian leader had announced previously without result. Russia views Belarus as a buffer against encroachment by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and EU toward its borders.

7. What do other countries say?

Global leaders reacted strongly after the Ryanair incident, with U.S. President Joe Biden saying it was “a direct affront to international norms” and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calling it “an attack on democracy.” In June the European Union imposed a sweeping set of sanctions against Belarus, targeting petroleum products and potash fertilizers, the country’s two main sources of foreign-currency revenue. However, previous rounds of EU and U.S. sanctions have failed to loosen Lukashenko’s hold on power, and the Kremlin has signaled it will continue to back him.

8. Are there other flashpoints?

Belarus is preparing for large-scale war games with Russia on its territory amid mounting tensions with Lithuania, a NATO and EU member, over a migrant crisis on their border. Some 12,800 troops, including 2,500 from Russia, are due to join the ‘Zapad-2021’ (West) military drills Sept. 10-16, according to the RIA Novosti news service, citing Belarusian Deputy Defense Minister Viktor Gulevich. The exercises, held in both countries every four years, take place as Lukashenko grows increasingly dependent on Russia after his crackdown. Lithuania, which has offered shelter to many members of the opposition, has accused him of “hybrid aggression” by channeling thousands of mainly Middle Eastern migrants across their border. The EU promised both financial support and pressure from Brussels on Iraq to help stem migrant flows and facilitate repatriation. The bloc has already provided some assistance to bolster border security. More than 4,100 undocumented immigrants have crossed into Lithuania from Belarus in 2021, compared with 81 in 2020.

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