Let’s start by stating the obvious. Under long-ruling dictator Alexander Lukashenko, a fascistic order has long obtained in Belarus—and it may now be going over the edge into outright fascism. Since 1994, Lukashenko has maintained power through the usual admixture of electoral fraud, party patronage and state terror. When the fraud became a bit too blatant in last August’s presidential race, the country exploded into protest. Lukashenko unleashed riot squads and army troops on the protesters, but the movement stayed strong—for months holding weekly demonstrations demanding the fall of the regime. This movement was finally beaten back in a wave of harsh repression earlier this year; tens of thousands have been detained, and hundreds have been subject to torture. Anti-fascists and anarchists have been particularly singled out for persecution under Lukashenko, and the current wave of terror has been no exception. Regime propaganda has been periodically punctuated by paranoid anti-Semitism. And this machinery of repression has, of course, been amply lubricated by foreign capital, which has invested heavily in the regime.
Which is why it’s particularly sickening that Lukashenko and his propaganda machine are now playing to anti-fascism in the international flare-up over his latest outrage.
This erupted May 23, when Lukashenko sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept an Irish commercial flight from Athens to Lithuania as it passed through Belarusian airspace. The airliner was forced to land at Minsk, the capital, where security forces arrested passenger Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian national. Also arrested was his girlfriend Seofia Sapega, a Russian citizen studying in Lithuania. The regime’s official press service initially cited a bomb threat in justification for the move, but no explosives were found on the plane.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is demanding the immediate release of Protasevich and Sapega. Protasevich, 26, appears to have been targeted for his leading role in last years’ protests, both as a popular blogger and co-founder of the NEXTA Telegram Messenger channel which was widely used to coordinate the demonstrations. Media had dubbed the protest movement “the world’s first Telegram revolution.”
Protasevich, who has been exiled to Lithuania since the wave of repression, is being charged with “inciting public disorder and social hatred,” potentially carrying a prison term of up to 12 years. He has also been placed on the Belarusian KGB’s list of “terrorists.” If he is formally charged with “terrorism,” he could face the death penalty. His father, Dmitri Protasevich, told the BBC he is “really afraid” his son will be tortured to extract a confession.
To justify this terrorist-branding, the regime is touting Protasevich’s supposed involvement in the Azov Battalion—a unit of the Ukrainian armed forces now fighting in the breakaway Donbas region and notorious for its Nazi-nostalgist imagery and politics.
Belarusian State Security Committee chairman Ivan Tertel told parliamentarians and other high officials: “There is no doubt that the person fully matches the definition of a terrorist, a mercenary, a participant of bloody events as part of the notorious Azov Battalion and abuses and murders of civilians in Ukraine’s southeast. It is not only our information and information of the investigators but facts readily available in mass media. These include personal confessions of Roman Protasevich, which are publicly available.”
The regime’s official newspaper, Belarus Segodnya, is also portraying Protasevich as a mercenary who fought in the Azov Battalion.
Ukraine’s independent EuroMaidan Press, dissecting these claims, notes that Protasevich confirmed in an interview last year that he had spent a year in the Donbas and was wounded—but said he was covering the conflict as a journalist and photographer.
Lukashenko’s official media and its Western mouthpiece blogs (and, of course, RT), are making much of a photograph that appeared on the cover of an Azov Battalion publication in July 2015, showing an armed man in fatigues who bears a resemblance to Protasevich. BBC News emphasizes: “But neither the image nor the claim of his involvement with the Azov regiment have been independently verified.”
Also circulating on social media is a photo of uncertain origin showing a man presumed to be Protasevich wearing a helmet with the double lightning-bolt symbol of the Nazi SS.
EuroMaidan Press stresses that since becoming an official regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, the Azov Battalion has been downplaying its radical-right politics. We are by no means certain this conversion is sincere, but it is worth noting EuroMaidan’s addendum: “A second necessary side remark, is that far-right fighters can be found on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Choosing to criticize only one side for this, as has frequently happened in investigations of the far-right in Ukraine, is not a sign of great virtue.”
Yeah, no kidding! We have pointed out (repeatedly) the resurgent fascist elements on both sides in the conflict that pits Kiev against Moscow, its satellite forces, and Minsk. But contrary to the Moscow-Minsk propaganda (eagerly swallowed by psuedo-left fools in the West) of a “Nazi coup” in Kiev in 2014, in fact it is Ukraine that has been going in a more democratic and progressive direction since the Maidan Revolution.
It is Ukraine that has seen a Jewish prime minister since 2014, seen peaceful transfers of power, and now has a Jewish president who just attended a ceremony for the opening of a synagogue at Babi Yar, the site of a massacre of thousands of Jews by Nazi troops and local collaborationist forces in September 1941. And this as Belarus is becoming a more closed dictatorship than ever.
Lukashenko’s Protasevich ploy is an exercise in an alarming phenomenon that we call paradoxical fascist pseudo-anti-fascism. This particularly noxious form of propaganda is much in evidence these days. We recently saw it here in the US when Georgia’s wacky-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene compared pandemic mask mandates to the Holocaust.
The unseemly rush on the part of psuedo-left useful idiots in the West to convict Protasevich—while turning a blind eye to Lukashenko’s unfolding fascist order—is dangerous and demoralizing in the extreme.