When exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya took a Ryanair flight from Athens to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, she wasn’t overly concerned about her safety. She couldn’t have predicted that just a week later her home country would scramble a fighter jet to force that same passenger flight to land and arrest a dissident journalist.
“We could not imagine that this regime would make such an act, to endanger the lives of hundreds of passengers, just to kidnap one person,” Tikhanovskaya told TIME, speaking from Vilnius on Monday. Of her own recent flight on that route, she said: “we never even thought about security. We were absolutely sure that we were safe.”
For those fighting to end the 27-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, who some call “Europe’s last dictator,” any sense of safety within the E.U. has vanished since Sunday’s nightmarish detour of the commercial airliner, which has triggered the bloc to announce stiffer sanctions against Belarus.
In March 2017, police officers detain journalist Roman Protasevich while attempting to cover a rally in Minsk.
Ryanair, one of Europe’s most popular budget airlines, had almost reached its destination of Vilnius on Sunday night, when a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet sped towards it in mid-air, and ordered its pilots to divert to the country’s capital Minsk. Authorities told the pilots there was a security threat on board. Once the aircraft was on the ground at Minsk Airport, Belarus security agents forcibly dragged journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend, law student Sofia Sapega, 23, off the plane to be detained in the country’s notorious jails. Three other passengers—believed to be from Belarus’s KGB intelligence service—also disembarked in Minsk.
While the incident was deeply shocking for Tikhanovskaya, she says it is the latest escalation in a pattern of behavior that has become all too familiar. “People are facing kidnapping from the streets every day,” she says. “Thousands of people are in jail. The situation in Belarus is deteriorating.”
She thinks Lukashenko has come to believe that he faces no serious consequences for his actions. “This event showed that the escalation is a result of impunity and the lack of attention,” she says. “Lukashenko thinks nobody can do anything, so he thinks, ‘I’ll do anything I want.’”
A Belarusian dog handler checks luggage after the Ryanair flight landed in Minsk on May 23.
‘No one feels safe anymore’
Protasevich’s arrest is part of a sweeping crackdown on whatever non-government media is left in Belarus. Last week the country’s financial police raided the offices of Tut.BY, the biggest independent news service in Belarus, and opened an investigation into its operations.
As the cofounder of Nexta, a hugely popular news channel on the Telegram platform run by Belarus dissidents, Protasevich was a big target. The channel has posted hundreds of videos and photos detailing the crackdown on protesters and incidents of torture in prisons.
In December, Nexta’s other founder, Stsiapan Putsila, told TIME that hundreds of Belarusians were risking arrest by smuggling images to Nexta. “It is very dangerous for them to send this information,” said Putsila, who now lives in the Polish capital Warsaw. “But their will to share the information is more significant.”
The exiled opposition politicians are deeply on edge after Sunday night’s arrests. Several are now based in Vilnius, just a three-hour drive from Belarus. “I did not sleep last night because I was so nervous,” says Franak Viacorka, Tikhanovskaya’s senior advisor, by phone from Vilnius on Monday. “No one feels safe anymore. They will not stop.”
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, and Lukashenko hold a meeting in Moscow in April.
Mikhail Klimentyev—Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Getty Images
Despite three rounds of E.U. sanctions against Belarus, officials have previously stopped short of sweeping, tough measures against Lukashenko’s inner circle, in part because of divisions within Europe over how to deal with Belarus’s giant neighbor and ally, Russia. With Belarus on its knees economically, Russian President Vladimir Putin granted Lukashenko a $1.5-billion bailout last September, helping the authoritarian leader to hold on to power.
The crisis erupted last August, when Lukashenko declared himself the overwhelming winner of Belarus’s presidential elections, although many in Belarus believed Tikhanovskaya had easily won. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign had effectively created its own election fraud detection system, by having its voters snap photos of their completed ballots, thus proving her victory.
Tikhanovskaya, 38, a former English teacher, jumped into the race last May, after security police arrested her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, thwarting his presidential run.
A political neophyte, Tikhanovskaya packed huge rallies, mobilizing thousands to march in protest, before fleeing last August across the border into Vilnius, where she now lives with her two children.