In an interview last November the 26-year-old opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich said he was not planning to spend his life in exile. “I would go back to Belarus immediately if my safety was guaranteed,” he said. “My intention is to return.”
The extraordinary circumstances of Pratasevich’s involuntary homecbeaoming have provoked international outrage, after his Ryanair flight was forced on Sunday to land in Belarus’s capital Minsk. It was on its way from Greece to Lithuania, where Pratasevich was living.
Friends have wryly noted that the thunderous and very public manner of his arrest is in keeping with his outsize career and personality. “Everything he does is loud,” Nicolai Khalezin, who has known him for a decade, said. “The riot police came and arrested me. Roma got a fighter jet.”
Khalezin, the co-artistic director of the Belarus Free Theatre, pointed to Pratasevich’s other achievements. They include working as the main editor for Nexta-Live, the Telegram channel which played a key role last year in organising protests against Belarus’s vengeful president Alexander Lukashenko.
At its peak Nexta had two million subscribers, making it the largest channel of its kind in eastern Europe. Pratasevich was key to its success. Those opposed to Lukahsenko’s rigging of last August’s presidential election were able to upload videos anonymously, thereby dodging an internet clampdown.
Pratasevich got involved in journalism early at the age of 15 and 16. He attended and filmed anti-government rallies and flashmobs. One of his early investigations probed how Belarus’s secret police – the KGB – recruited journalists. “He’s full of energy. He likes straight talking,” Khalezin said. “And he’s funny, always ready to laugh, chatting after work about the situation.”
Pratasevich was always clear in his views – more of an eastern European reporter than a dispassionate British one, friends say. “He’s a person who always wants to be on the frontline,” Franak Viačorka, a senior aide to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said. “He’s always taking risks, involved in every protest that was happening”.
Viačorka added: “He’s an activist, turned to journalist, turned activist again. He was very good on YouTube and on Telegram. He knows what the audience expects so he’s great at explaining complicated things. And he was very critical of Lukashenko.” The president’s decision to force down his Boeing aircraft was “personal revenge”, he added.
In 2019 Pratesevich left Belarus because of pressure from the authorities. He teamed up with Nexta’s 22-year-old founder Stsiapan Putsila. The pair operated from an office in Warsaw, Poland. When last summer’s revolution began, they disseminated footage of street marches and helped plan and coordinate them.
The authorities responded in furious fashion. A court declared Nexta’s logo extremist. Pratasevich – co-recipient of the European parliament’s Sakharov prize for freedom of thought – was placed on a terrorist watch list. He was charged with organising mass disorder, disrupting public order and inciting social hatred.
Eight months ago his parents exited Belarus for Poland. His father, Dmitry, said he didn’t necessarily agree with his son’s opinions but always supported him. The pair had a heart-to-heart in the kitchen: ‘I told him: ‘Whatever you do, even if I don’t approve of it, I will accept it. It’s your choice.” A military servicemen, Dmitry was stripped of his rank because of Pratasevich’s political stance.
Last year Pratasevich left Nexta and joined another Telegram channel after its editor was arrested and jailed. The split with Putsila was creative rather than personal, friends say, with Pratasevich keen to move away from activism towards a more traditional kind of journalism.
In his November interview with the channel Country-Life, Pratasevich said that Belarus’s transformation into a democracy would take time. Lukahsheno may flee to Russia, he suggested, but would leave behind the KGB and law enforcement bodies, as well as officials with an enduring “Soviet mentality”.
A post-Lukashenko Belarus needed urgent judicial reform as well as a free and fair elections, a parliamentary system and an overhaul of its constitution, he said. He didn’t see himself playing a political role as a future minister. Instead, he would carry on with his media activities, he suggested.
On Sunday Pratasevich was travelling to Vilnius with his Russian girlfriend, 23-year-old Sofia Sapega, a student at Lithuania’s European Humanities University. The pair had known each other for some years and began dating recently. Vilnius is home to Tsikhanouskaya and the de facto capital for Belarus’s opposition.
Sunday’s dramatic events could not have been anticipated but he was fully aware of the danger, Viačorka said. “Everyone who joined the movement, who works in journalism and at Nexta knows the risk they face. It was a conscious choice. He knew what he did and he knew all the risks. And even an accusation of terrorism didn’t stop him.”
Pratasevich’s fate is now darkly unclear. Viačorka added: “He’s been tortured, I’m sure of this, and this confession that we saw was the result of this torture. We are living in the Orwellian, Stalin-style dictatorship that destroys lives in order to let the supreme leader stay in power.”