Who is Roman Protashevich – journalist, activist, or enemy of the state?

Many call Roman Protasevich a journalist, others a blogger, and for some he is an activist. In any case, he now faces up to 15 years in prison in Belarus. In his ‘career’, the 26-year-old combines all the typical characteristics of a far-right nationalist financed by the West.

The news about the arrest of Belarusian political activist Roman Protasevich during a stopover in Minsk went around the world on Sunday. A CNN broadcast was even interrupted, and ex-presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was connected. She had met with him in Athens just over a week ago. On Monday, the EU summit also immediately discussed the appropriate punitive measures against Belarus. Landing bans on Belarusian airline Belavia are only one of the possible options. Belarus is accused of hijacking the civilian airliner and brutal repression of the opposition and freedom of expression. A diplomatic crisis is currently escalating around the case. The pressure on the Eastern European country is increasing. The “Causa Protashevich” threatens to develop into a Belarusian “Case Navalny.”

But who is Roman Protashevich, and above all, what are the consequences of his arrest? Criminal proceedings have been initiated against him: for “incitement to racial, national, religious or other social hatred or discord” (punishable by up to 12 years in prison), for “mass disorder” (up to 3 years in prison), and for “organization and preparation of acts unfavorable to public order” (up to 2 years in prison).

During the height of the wave of protests in Belarus last year over the allegedly rigged elections, Protasevich had risen to become one of the key figures of the radical opposition as the main editor of the Telegram channel NEXTA-Live. A few years earlier, the channel was founded by the reporter of the Polish TV station Belsat Stepan Putilo and at times had up to two million subscribers. NEXTA functioned as a news source, digital battle sheet, and central hub for protest coordination. NEXTA, NEXTA Live, and other similar channels were famous for their derogatory hate rhetoric towards President Lukashenko, other state officials, and security forces. Personal data of police officers was disseminated, and calls were made to exert maximum pressure on them and their families. The channel also called for maximum damage to the Belarusian economy through sanctions, sabotage actions, and strikes.

The Supreme Court in Minsk had thus classified the Telegram channel NEXTA as extremist on 20 October 2020. In February 2021, Belarus applied to Poland for the extradition of the two journalists. As expected, Polish authorities did not take any notice of this since they support these and many other activists with grants, police protection, and diplomatic backing.

Protasevich himself described himself in an interview as an “activist” journalist. For his young age, he indeed already has a remarkable career as an opposition activist. In 2011 and 2012, while still at school, he coordinated protest groups on social media, such as “We are fed up with Lukashenko.”  Over the years, he has moved in the radicals’ nationalist circles. In 2011, he became a member of the nationalist organization “Young Front” and rose to become one of its leading officials.

At the end of 2013, Protasyevich went to Kiev as a 17-year-old and took part in the Maidan protests. This allowed him to participate in the famous destruction of the Lenin monument in Kiev on 8 December 2013. According to a photo circulated by himself, he enjoyed it a lot. He describes his views as anti-communist, pro-Western, and critical of Russia. 

With the change of power in Kiev and the beginning of the civil war in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, the young Belarusian went to the “front.” He described himself in an interview as a freelancer who made video recordings and reported from the front. He admitted to having been injured there. According to other reports, Protasyevich received brief combat training with the radical right-wing militia “Azov Regiment” and worked in the militia’s press service.

In 2017, Protasevich received a journalism bursary from a Czech non-governmental organization. In the same year, he also worked for the US state broadcaster Radio Liberty. In April 2018, Protasevich took a trip to Washington, D.C., and visited the US State Department. He reported having many relevant meetings during the trip. Since then, he moved to the USAID-funded Euroradio, where he worked until the end of 2019. In December 2019, he finally emigrated to Poland, where he applied for political asylum. In Poland, the activist worked at Project NEXTA from February 2020 until he parted ways with its founder Stepan Putilo at the end of September. Protasevich then moved to Lithuania, where he cooperated with the staff of ex-presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Shortly before his arrest, the activist reported that he would soon launch a new “cool” project.

Whatever Roman Protashevich may call himself, he is an active opponent of the Belarusian state in its current form. US President Joe Biden had no qualms about calling “domestic terrorists” those who questioned his election victory and stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on 6 January. Currently, more than 280 criminal cases are pending against the participants of that storming; dozens of them face long sentences, two participants already took their own lives.

But Belarus is not like the USA. It is well known how much financial, organizational, logistical, and diplomatic support the Belarusian opposition and “independent media” have received from the US and other Western countries. They have raised a whole caste of paid activists there. In Belarus, they are openly pursuing a regime change agenda to extend their siege against Russia. With a “talent promotion” system, especially young people with stamina and energy, in the desired direction of course, rise quickly in the ramified NGO network. Roman Protashevich is a typical example. But if the Belarusian security authorities had not arrested him during his stopover in Minsk, he would hardly have become as world-famous as he is now.

Dr. Andrea Galli
Dr. Andrea Galli
Dr. Andrea Galli, principal investigator at swiss east affairs