The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Belarus’s hijacking isn’t a show of strength. It’s a sign of weakness.

Poorly informed leaders with few allies are more likely to take risks, the research shows

The Belarusian president addresses parliament in Minsk on May 26. (Sergei Shelega/BelTA Pool/AP)
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Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka defended Sunday’s forced landing of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to divert to Minsk, calling it a lawful move to protect passengers from an alleged Hamas bomb threat and avert potential disaster at a nuclear power plant.

Belarus authorities found no bomb on the plane but detained two passengers: Raman Pratasevich, 26 — a Belarusian journalist and opposition activist — and his companion, Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian law student. Global leaders, human rights organizations and pro-democracy groups have denounced the plane’s interception and the detentions, calling the bold move a government hijacking or even an act of war.

So was Lukashenka showing the West and his own people that he’s a strong leader — or was this the desperate move of an isolated dictator? Political science research suggests that Lukashenka is weaker and even more desperate than he looks.

How can the world hold Belarus accountable?

Lukashenka is clinging to power

After 26 years in power, the president of Belarus has been clinging to power since August, when mass protests erupted after he claimed he had received 80 percent of the vote in an election that many experts believe to be fraudulent. Lukashenka’s violent crackdown on protesters led the opposition to join forces, and protests quickly spread across the country. MOBILISE project data suggest an estimated 3 to 5 percent of Belarusians joined in weekly protests in over 80 cities. However, as repression became more relentless in an attempt to neutralize the opposition, the protests died down.

The detention of Pratasevich is a bold move by Lukashenka, meant to signal to people who might challenge his regime that they aren’t safe — no matter where they are. Close allies now fear for Pratasevich’s safety, as well as their own. Before the plane landed, Pratasevich reportedly told his fellow passengers that “they will kill me.”

Why Pratasevich became a key target

Belarus authorities over the past decade had regularly detained Pratasevich, a seasoned activist of the Belarusian pro-democracy movement — and hacked his social media profiles. Following threats to his own safety and the safety of his family, he applied for political asylum in Poland.

Analysts believe Pratasevich played a key role in the anti-Lukashenka resistance. He co-founded and served as editor, until recently, of one of the main information and coordination nodes — an activist and media organization called Nexta. Nexta runs several channels on the messaging app Telegram, highly popular in Belarus because information is harder to censor and monitor than other social media and news websites.

When Belarus forced down a plane, it may have committed state-sponsored hijacking

In August, a wide variety of Belarusian communities sprang up on the app — these proved instrumental in coordinating the protests. Nexta provided information about times and routes, how to avoid police crackdowns, and what citizens could do to help the protesters stay safe — while urging protesters to remain peaceful. According to our research, in 2020, Nexta.live became the most-followed political channel on the entire Telegram network, attracting more than 1 million followers.

The combination of protests and free-flowing and uncensored information significantly damaged the legitimacy of the Lukashenka regime. That’s why the Belarusian government has tried to hunt down activists suspected of coordinating the protests on Telegram, including Nexta team members, some of whom Belarus authorities listed on domestic “terrorist” lists.

Western commentators may be missing the point

The reaction from Western governments to the hijacking has been predictably stern — flight bans, sanctions and accusations of terrorism. Many experts have emphasized the role of Vladimir Putin and the Russian security apparatus, arguing that Russia was involved in or sanctioned the operation.

But this focus on Russia misses the point. Why does Lukashenka think that the extreme measures to detain an activist were in his own best interest? Our research shows that embattled regimes think differently, depending on whether they are weak or strong. Leaders that have insider knowledge, extensive information, politically reliable security forces, and domestic and international allies and supporters at home are in a position of strength.

But leaders with only poor or misleading information, in contrast, have a weak position — they may have imperfect control of the security forces, don’t understand the coalition that has formed against them and are isolated at home and abroad. This makes them more liable to miscalculate.

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Comparative research suggests that strong authoritarian leaders are less likely to use mass violence to suppress revolts — it’s politically costly, embarrassing to rulers with big egos and may encourage the wider population to turn against them. Thus, they try to keep the masses contented or at least appeased, while going after individual opposition leaders and key activists one by one.

Belarus’s repressive tactics have traditionally targeted the regime’s political opponents, civil activists and journalists. While Belarus security forces are still carrying out these measures, Sunday’s hijacking was a much riskier step politically. Instead of arresting an activist who returned out of their own volition to Belarus (like Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia), Lukashenka brazenly — and clumsily — threatened the lives of more than 100 passengers, many of them citizens of the European Union. Lukashenka had to know that the international reaction would be costly, damaging Belarus’s economy and probably undermining his support.

So why would Lukashenka do this, even if he had backing from Russia? Political science would suggest that only a weak and poorly informed leader who no longer wanted to shore up his domestic support and knew he had few allies left might take this route. In Lukashenka’s case, he was perhaps unsure of his support from Russia, one of his few allies.

Weak and uninformed leaders who see themselves as isolated and encircled by enemies (think Bashar al-Assad in Syria) may take high-risk actions that disrupt domestic and international order. Sometimes these gambles succeed.

But evidence also suggests that Lukashenka is prone to miscalculation. In August, he made the mistake of repressing youth and opposition activists without realizing that this would unite middle-class parents, university students and factory workers for the largest protests in country’s history. Now the sanctions might push the remaining citizens who were on the fence to join in the protests. At the same time, international sanctions might push an already desperate despot further over the edge. Lukashenka appears to have rolled the dice again, with unpredictable consequences.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

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Dr. Olga Onuch @oonuch is an associate professor (senior lecturer) at the University of Manchester. She is the principal investigator of www.mobiliseproject.com.

Dr. Aliaksandr Herasimenka (@alesherasimenka) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

Dr. Sofie Bedford (@sofiebedford) is an affiliated researcher at IRES Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden.

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