‘I’m insanely thankful to the president’: how a Belarus dissident became an apologist for the regime

Raman Pratasevich was dragged off a plane and imprisoned two years ago. Now he praises the regime he used to denounce

Two years ago, Raman Pratasevich, a young Belarusian dissident blogger, was white-knuckled, begging a Ryanair flight crew not to make an emergency landing at Minsk airport.

He said: “Don’t do this, they will kill me, I am a refugee,” according to a fellow passenger. The plane, escorted by a Belarusian Mig-29 fighter jet sent to force it down, landed anyway. Pratasevich was promptly arrested.

Last week he emerged from custody. The activist and blogger, accused of more than 1,586 crimes, was charged on 10 counts including conspiracy to seize power. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and then promptly pardoned, his reward from Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko for becoming a full-throated mouthpiece of the regime.

If Pratasevich still has his life, then Lukashenko’s price has been the young activist’s dignity. The boyish 28-year-old now appears regularly on Belarusian state television and other propaganda outlets, where he plays a new role: a penitent defector from the opposition who has denounced his former allies and now extols the benevolence of the Belarusian dictator, day after day.

“I’m insanely thankful to the country and personally to the president,” he said on camera shortly after his release. In a long interview on state television, he apologised to the riot police who “defended the country” during the mass protests of 2020, the largest in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union, and claimed he had been ordered to stir up the protests to create a pretext for international sanctions against Belarus.

At the darkest moment of his imprisonment, Pratasevich denounced his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who was arrested alongside him and had just been sentenced to six years in prison.

From house arrest, he publicly announced their split and said he had married another woman, posting a photograph of the two on what he said was their wedding day. How he did all that while under arrest was not explained.

Raman Pratasevich’s former girlfriend Sofia Sapega
Raman Pratasevich’s former girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who is serving a six-year jail sentence. Photograph: Leonid Shcheglov/AP

“Why should I leave?” he said on state television last week, looking thoroughly brainwashed. “It’s very good here, there are a lot of young people, everyone is walking, the birds are singing.”

The breaking of Pratasevich, who weeks before his arrest compared Lukashenko’s repressions to Hitler’s, has been a macabre display of the dictator’s power and desire for revenge.

“The goal of Lukashenko was simple and clear: to break the personality of Raman and make him the instrument, the tool of Lukashenko’s policy,” said Franak Viačorka, chief of staff to exiled Belarusian protest leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who knew Pratasevich in Vilnius before his arrest. “And he achieved it.”

Three years ago, Lukashenko appeared at the brink of ruin, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators thronged downtown Minsk calling for him to go. To save his regime, the thuggish security services resorted to mass arrests and acts of brutality against ordinary Belarusians.

Now, with his enemies largely in prison or in exile, the ageing dictator has sought to make an example of Pratasevich.

While the Belarusian leader has appeared to be facing health difficulties recently, having difficulty with his speaking at public events and sporting a heavily bandaged arm, his control over the state apparatus seems firm.

Last week, he said Belarus had begun to take delivery of tactical nuclear weapons from Russia, raising the stakes for any future protest in the country.

“Lukashenko’s dream is for the Belarusian opposition to get on its knees and beg him for forgiveness and admit it has been politically defeated,” said Pavel Latushka, a former culture minister under Lukashenko, who joined the opposition and was a key figure in the 2020 protests. He now lives in exile in Warsaw.

He added, however, that he did not want to criticise Pratasevich too harshly. “It’s difficult to pass judgment on someone who has spent time in a Belarusian jail,” he said. “They’ll just kill him if he stops doing what they want.”

Latushka described Belarus’s crackdown as a “conveyor belt of repression”, and lamented that international focus on the country had waned even as the west united against the Kremlin for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“There is no longer any discussion on Belarus. In the 21st century, a country is disappearing from the map of Europe. They even got tired of writing tweets about Belarus,” said Latushka.

Pratasevich is not the first staunch critic to emerge from prison singing a pro-regime tune.

The political scientist Yuri Voskresensky, who was jailed in 2020 after joining the presidential campaign of opposition candidate Viktor Babariko, was released in October that year after a meeting between Lukashenko and political prisoners in jail. “We have the chance to democratise and we should take it,” he said at the time, claiming he believed Lukashenko was sincere in his desire for reform. He has since become a regime mouthpiece.

Like many others, Viačorka assumes Pratasevich may have been tortured, put in isolation and faced psychological manipulation during his time in a KGB prison, and “still is not free”.

But there are thousands of Belarusian political prisoners, he noted, and just a few have begun collaborating publicly with the regime.

“From the hero, he became an anti-hero. From a victim, he became a traitor,” he said. “For myself, I decided to think about two Raman Pratasevichs: one before Ryanair and one after Ryanair. After Ryanair, this Raman does not exist for me. A man who agreed to collaborate with the regime. The one before Ryanair is the one I respect.”

The Ryanair aircraft carrying Pratasevich in May 2021 was diverted to Minsk, where he was arrested.
The Ryanair aircraft carrying Pratasevich in May 2021 was diverted to Minsk, where he was arrested. Photograph: Onliner/EPA

Friends who knew Pratasevich before his arrest painted a picture of a young and enthusiastic activist who was riding a wave of euphoria on the crucial role that he and colleagues played in the protest movement of 2020.

Jan Rudzik, a journalist, worked closely with Pratasevich during the 2020 protests, when they were both in Warsaw with Nexta, a Telegram channel that became instrumental in coordinating the protest movement.

At the height of the demonstrations, Nexta would direct crowds of thousands of protesters, in effect organising the mass demonstrations that seemed to threaten Lukashenko’s hold on power.

The Telegram channel also published big leaks, including the identities of 1,000 Belarusian riot police, meant to sow discord within the ranks of the authorities. “No one will remain anonymous, even under a balaclava,” the channel said.

“We became friends; he wanted to go out and make friends with everyone – he was almost a bit naive,” said Rudzik.

“He was giving lots of interviews, and it was obvious he enjoyed it. In the first interviews, he was saying: ‘We organised this, together with the Belarusian people’; then it became: ‘We organised this’; and before long it was: ‘I organised this,’” said Rudzik.

He said Pratasevich left Warsaw for Vilnius to work for another Telegram channel towards the end of 2020 after a partial falling out with the rest of the Nexta team. Still, he found Pratasevich’s recent transformation shocking.

“It’s very hard to fully understand what could have happened to him in there,” said Rudzik.

Now, as Pratasevich walks free and his former girlfriend remains in jail, his case stands as a symbol of the physical and psychological dangers of standing up to Lukashenko.

“He was brave, he was a real patriot, but unfortunately he didn’t have enough stamina to survive through all the challenges he faced in Minsk at the hands of the KGB,” said Viačorka.