Belarusian state TV channel ONT broadcast Thursday a 90-minute interview with Roman Protasevich, the journalist arrested when Minsk forced down a civilian plane last month. Viewers compared the spectacle to George Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Love’ from his dystopian novel 1984 in which a character under torture is forced to denounce his comrades on television.
- Everything about the interview, which more closely resembled an interrogation, was off. For starters, it wasn’t filmed in the studio normally used for shows starring the head of ONT Marat Markov — a former deputy head of Lukashenko’s ideology department. In place of the usual studio, we saw an anonymous space shrouded in black curtains. It’s possible that this was even filmed directly in the detention center where Protasevich has been held since the end of May. For the past five days, Protasevich has not been allowed to meet his lawyer.
There are serious doubts that Protasevich was speaking of his own free will. There are signs of bruises around his wrists and he is clearly under colossal stress. At the end of the video, Protasevich breaks down in tears, while the cameras linger and zoom in from various angles as he struggles to regain his composure. Nexta founder Roman Putilo considers Protasevich’s words to be “the result of unbearable torture.” Protasevich’s father agreed. He believes his son is engaging in a constant internal struggle in the video and that the marks on his wrists are evidence of the use of handcuffs. During the interview, Protasevich said “nobody did my make up before filming.”
- Barely holding back tears, the former editor-in-chief of the Nexta protest channel said that he “accepted full responsibility” for organizing the Belarusian protests that “left Minsk in chaos for three days.” He also said that as he became more involved in politics, he realized that “many of the things for which Alexander Grigorievich [Lukashenko] is criticized are just attempts to put pressure on him” and that the president “behaved like a man with balls of steel.”
Protasevich also said that Nexta, one of the top Russian-language channels on Telegram and the mouthpiece of the Belarusian revolution, is funded by a businessman “connected with the Urals and mining” and a “direct competitor of another well-known Russian businessman, Mikhail Gutseriev.” That description perfectly matches Dmitry Mazepin, who attended Putin’s address at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Mazepin, a Minsk native, owns Uralchem and Uralkali and has repeatedly spoken out in support of the protests in Belarus. In August 2020, he proposed creating a”‘national salvation committee” in his homeland to arbitrate talks between Lukashenko and the opposition.
Uralkali is a rival of Belaruslkali, one of the country’s biggest exporters. Up until 2013, they worked together on the export market as a single trader, the Belarusian Potash Company, which accounted for more than 40 percent of the global market. Then the alliance broke us. Gutseriev, mentioned by Protasevich, still has a potash business in Belarus, but his main business is in oil. Gutseriev is known to be very close to Lukashenko.
Russia is clearly taking a position of tacit approval. Putin, who was asked about Protasevich at SPIEF, said: “I don’t know him and I don’t want to know him. Let him do what he wants and struggle against Lukashenko’s regime.”
Why the world should care
It’s frightening to think about what Protasevich, his girlfriend and their families are going through right now. But one thing he said in his interview is undeniable: the Belarusian protests are most likely to succeed in the event of an economic collapse. And the biggest hit for the economy, as several Belarusian economists told The Bell, could only come from sanctions on Belarus’ key export sectors — oil and potash. This is what the world should care about.