Belarus Turns a Story of Love and Protest Into a Tale of Betrayal

When the Belarusian dictator Aleksandr G. Lukashenko sent a MIG fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair passenger plane carrying an exiled antigovernment activist and his girlfriend two years ago, he turned the young dissident into a martyr of the struggle for democracy.

The plane, flying from Greece to Lithuania, was forced to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, after the authorities there claimed falsely that there was a bomb on board. The episode stirred international outrage and put an admiring spotlight on the Belarusian activist, Roman Protasevich, now 28, and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 25.

This week, Mr. Lukashenko rewrote the script, turning what had been a story of democratic ardor and young love thwarted by tyranny into a dark tale of political and romantic betrayal.

Arrested along with Ms. Sapega in May 2021 at Minsk airport, Mr. Protasevich received a rare pardon on Monday from a government not known for its mercy. A video released by the state media showed him standing in a leafy park as he expressed thanks for the “great news” and declared himself “insanely grateful” to Mr. Lukashenko, whom he once compared to Hitler.

He had previously dumped Ms. Sapega to marry another woman, posting a photograph online last year of himself kissing his unidentified new bride. How he met her while still in the clutches of a Belarusian security apparatus that keeps many of its prisoners in solitary confinement has never been explained.

With everything that Mr. Protasevich has said or done publicly since his arrest two years ago filtered through Belarus’ state media and supervised by security officials, it cannot be established with certainty whether he has really changed sides. Nor, if he did, what pressure he endured while in detention from a regime that has long tortured political prisoners.

But there is a wide consensus among fellow opposition activists that Mr. Protasevich has turned against them.

“Please don’t praise him as a freedom fighter. He is a very dark figure in this whole story,” Andrei Sannikov, an exiled opposition leader, said by telephone. “We don’t want to hear his name ever again. He betrayed his girlfriend. He betrayed his friends and colleagues. He betrayed the whole democratic movement.”

Franak Viacorka, the chief of staff to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, accused Mr. Protasevich of securing his pardon by collaborating with Belarus’ fearsome secret police agency, which has clung to its Soviet-era name, the K.G.B.

Mr. Protasevich’s transition from martyred pro-democracy hero to widely reviled collaborator is “a very important story which teaches us how cruel regimes like Lukashenko’s are,” Mr. Viacorka said in a statement to The New York Times.

“We do not know what torture they used against him. We saw him on TV — he was just destroyed. He looked very miserable, sick, beaten, and he shouldn’t have been there.”

Before his arrest, Mr. Protasevich worked from exile in Lithuania and Poland as the editor of Nexta, a channel on the Telegram messaging app that played an important role in organizing huge street protests that swept across Belarus in 2020 after Mr. Lukashenko claimed an implausible landslide victory, his sixth, in a presidential election widely viewed as rigged.

Facing a possible death sentence for treason, Mr. Protasevich quickly dropped his anti-Lukashenko fervor after his 2021 arrest.

He appeared on Belarusian state television in June that year with bruises on his wrists and what looked like a bruise on his head, confessing to having organized antigovernment protests and urging a “neutral position” toward Mr. Lukashenko. His family, supporters and Western officials said at the time that he had made the remarks under duress.

Mr. Viacorka said this week that while he felt some sympathy for Mr. Protasevich, “I do not know if I will be able to forgive” him because “if you collaborate you put dozens or perhaps hundreds of people in danger.”

But he cautioned against judging Mr. Protasevich too harshly. “I do not know how I would behave personally in such a situation,” he said, “We should be very careful when we assess the behavior of one or another person.”

Doubts about Mr. Protasevich have been growing for months, particularly since news emerged last year that he had been released from a grim pretrial detention center into house arrest while Ms. Sapega, his girlfriend, had received a six-year jail sentence.

In a cold response to Ms. Sapega’s jailing in May 2022, Mr. Protasevich appeared to throw his former partner under the bus, stating in a blog post that she had been “convicted of her real activities and not for being in a relationship with me.” Six years in jail, he said, was “far from the most terrible sentence possible.”

Anyway, he added, he had already split up with Ms. Sapega and married an unnamed local woman. He posted a color photograph of himself with his new bride, who was in a bright yellow dress. Her face had been blurred to obscure her identity. She held a bouquet of pink roses.

While Ms. Sapega has been held incommunicado since the Ryanair plane landed in Minsk in 2021, Mr. Protasevich has been allowed to speak publicly at regular intervals, usually at tightly scripted events in Minsk under the eye of security officials, and through the state news media.

In June last year, shortly after the jailing of Ms. Sapega, he told Belta, the official news agency, that detention in Belarus was now “the safest place for me” because “many people consider me a traitor,” though he has denied betraying any of his former colleagues.

Belta said he had “made an informed decision to cooperate with the investigation.”

Family and friends said that Mr. Protasevich’s early appearances in Minsk suggested that he been beaten. But he later appeared in public looking relaxed and unscathed. He struck an increasingly pro-government tone as he renounced his views and started criticizing Mr. Lukashenko’s foes.

A Belarusian court in May sentenced Mr. Protasevich to eight years in prison for crimes including acts of terrorism and insulting the president but the pardon announced on Monday suggested that he would spend no further time behind bars.

Sergei Bespalov, a Belarusian opposition activist and blogger, claimed after Mr. Protasevich’s sentencing in May that “tens of people have been jailed because of his actions.” He added in a video: “He simply gave them up.”

Mr. Sannikov, the leader of the European Belarus Civil Campaign, an opposition organization run from Poland, and a former political prisoner in Mr. Lukashenko’s jails, said the relatively lenient treatment of Mr. Protasevich compared with that of his former girlfriend had confirmed suspicions long held by some opposition activists.

“He was a stooge from the beginning,” Mr. Sannikov said. “We never trusted him. I told friends not to have any dealings with him.”

Nexta, the opposition Telegram channel Mr. Protasevich edited, he said, often “gave mixed directions” to Minsk protesters and “made people run around the city without any purpose.” Nexta at that time also published demonstrably false information that the Belarusian authorities exploited to try to discredit the opposition.

Exiled political groups often fall into infighting and mutual finger-pointing, a phenomenon that Mr. Lukashenko has encouraged by sending agents to infiltrate and disrupt the activities of opponents outside Belarus. His critics inside the country have nearly all been arrested and given harsh sentences.

Maria Kolesnikova, a fierce opponent of Mr. Lukashenko who refused to go into exile, was jailed for 11 years in September 2021 after a closed trial. The crackdown on dissent continued this year when Ales Bialiatski, 60, a veteran activist who shared last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, received a 10-year sentence.

Mr. Protasevich’s pardon, Mr. Viacorka said, is part of a long and dirty game by the Belarusian authorities to crush the opposition — through brute force at home and more devious methods abroad. According to Viasna, a group that monitors repression in Belarus, the country currently has 1,525 political prisoners.

“In the eyes of Lukashenko, Roman became loyal, obedient, and he wanted every political prisoner to behave like Roman,” Mr. Viacorka said, “Basically, Roman humiliated himself publicly and this is what Lukashenko wanted” as a lesson to other exiled opposition figures like Ms. Tikhanovskaya.

For Mr. Sannikov, however, the whole episode carries another lesson: “There are lots of people who are praised who did not live up to expectations. Don’t create heroes. Just be a decent person.”

Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania.

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