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26 May 2021

Autocrats around the world are watching to see how the West responds to Belarus’s air piracy

There is one important reason why autocrats are targeting dissident exiles like journalist Roman Protasevich more and more: because they think they can.

By Jeremy Cliffe

For most of history, to flee one’s country was to detach oneself from its politics. Exiles might have attempted to smuggle books, pamphlets, money or weapons back home, but could do little to shape events there directly. Autocratic regimes knew as much, which is why some expelled dissidents rather than imprison them (“That’s it! Everything is over! Life is over,” cried Wolf Biermann, a regime-critical East German singer, on hearing while on tour in West Germany in 1976 that he would not be allowed back). Exile, that “unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place”, as Edward Said put it, generally meant powerlessness and silence.

But in the past decade or so Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Telegram have transformed all that. “Digital technologies enable activists and journalists to participate in their country’s civic life from afar, almost in real time,” observes a report published in February by Freedom House, an American NGO. “More than ever before, people forced to flee abroad can engage in public debates through social media, run media outlets, campaign for human rights, and support dissident movements in the origin country.”

A typical example is Roman Protasevich. After years of activism in movements opposed to Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, the young campaigner felt threatened enough to leave his country in 2019 and seek political asylum in Poland. But he remained influential in Belarus’s politics by running Nexta, a Telegram channel that played a prominent role in the pro-democracy protests that gripped his home country last summer. Thousands poured on to the streets under the white and red of the country’s flag, furious at a fixed election and the long, drab years of dictatorship.

A measure of how threatened the regime felt by Protasevich came on 23 May. Implausibly citing a bomb threat, the Belarusian government used a military jet to force a Ryanair flight he was taking from Athens to Vilnius to land at Minsk. Fellow passengers reported that he had his head in his hands and was shaking, telling them: “I’ll get the death penalty.” Following his arrest, he was shown in a video “confessing” to organising mass riots. EU leaders have agreed retaliatory sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.

If Protasevich typifies the new challenge to autocrats from extra-territorial dissidents, then Lukashenko’s reckless move typifies the extra-territorial repression that autocrats are deploying in response. Targeting exiles is not new (think of Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico in 1940) but according to Freedom House it is rising, with 608 documented instances in the period from 2014 to 2020. It attributes this firstly to the greater perceived risk to autocrats from social media-savvy activists like Protasevich and secondly to the possibilities for surveillance made available to hostile home governments through the same technologies.

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[see also: Belarus’s Ryanair flight hijacking: how will the world respond?]

Similar to Protasevich’s case was that of Ruhollah Zam. An Iranian in exile in Paris, he too ran a popular opposition Tele-gram channel (in his case, Amadnews) that helped organise and inspire anti-regime protests (the 2017-18 demonstrations in Tehran and other cities). Lured to Iraq in October 2019 by the promise of an interview with a senior cleric, he was bundled into a car, driven across the border to Iran and, after “confessing” in a TV interview, was executed last December.

Alexei Navalny, too, deserves a mention. Though never quite in exile, the Russian opposition leader recovered in Germany after his poisoning in Omsk last year. During that time abroad he published a sensational YouTube video, which was watched more than 100 million times, showing an opulent palace allegedly belonging to Vladimir Putin. He spent his short German stay under police protection – the long arm of the Kremlin being what it is – before returning to Russia to face arrest on spurious charges.

Other examples abound. Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi Arabian journalist and an influential voice from his exile in the US, was in 2018 brutally murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Hong Kong pro-democracy activists who have fled to Taiwan and the UK to continue their struggle have confessed fears for their safety (“We all understand how far-reaching China’s reach could be, so I still have to live a very cautious and vigilant life,” the campaigner Nathan Law told the New Statesman recently of his exile in London). Last August Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan opposition politician who became famous as the “Hotel Rwanda” manager who saved more than 1,200 people during the country’s genocide, left exile in the US to travel to Burundi on a speaking invitation. His charter flight from Dubai in fact took him to Rwanda, where he was charged with terrorism and, he says, tortured.

The Freedom House report cites another reason why autocrats are targeting dissident exiles more and more: because they think they can. Globally, democracy has declined in recent years. International norms are being eroded. The Saudi government, for example, faced barely any international censure for Khashoggi’s murder.

It is in this context that Protasevich’s plight needs to be understood. What happens now matters not just because one opposition campaigner has been snatched from exile and locked up. It matters because leaders in Tehran, Beijing, Riyadh, Moscow, Ankara and elsewhere are watching how Western leaders respond. They are doubtless thinking about the irksome, activist exiles from their own countries, capable of fomenting opposition and protest from London or Washington, Paris or Berlin, Toronto or Taipei, and whether or not to defy international norms and kill, render or otherwise silence them. They will weigh in the balance the price that the West now makes Lukashenko pay. 

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism