Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Remember the dictator who sent military fighter jets to force a commercial flight to land so he could arrest one of his critics? That dictator was Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and one of the world’s longest-ruling autocrats. Now, we learn, a month earlier he kidnapped an American citizen.
Youras Ziankovich, a lawyer with American citizenship, has been in Belarussian hands since April. He has long been a critic of the Belarussian strongman and he, too, thought he could protect himself from a repressive regime by staying beyond its borders. But Lukashenko is proving once again that tyrants don’t respect national borders. Transnational repression is becoming increasingly common, further evidence of the global threat posed by authoritarianism.
Transnational repression often moves quietly, below the radar, as when Russia sent killers into the UK to assassinate critics of President Vladimir Putin’s regime, when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to US intelligence, approved an operation in Istanbul to kill the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, or on the many occasions when Iran sent squads to Europe to kill regime dissidents.
This time, it was different. Ziankovich was apparently kidnapped in Moscow, with full support of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Ziankovich’s wife, Alena Dzenisavets, says she has not seen or spoken to her husband since April 11, shortly before four men in plain clothes, who were waiting for him at his Moscow hotel, threw a hood over his head and stuffed him in a car. She says she put together a sequence of events by speaking to his lawyer and hotel witnesses in Moscow. The kidnappers drove him more than 400 miles from Moscow to the Belarussian capital, Minsk, where he was sent to the Belarus KGB’s pretrial detention center.
Six days later, Lukashenko announced he had uncovered a plan to kill him, abduct his children, and topple his regime, part of a coup attempt by “foreign intelligence services, most likely the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI.” US authorities say the allegations are “absolutely untrue.”
It may all sound complicated, but it really isn’t.
Lukashenko is an illegitimate president, searching desperately for ways to discredit the opposition. He almost assuredly lost last year’s election, but declared victory and stayed in office with Russia’s support.
In his quest to snuff out calls for democracy, Lukashenko enjoys the support of Putin, who would feel his own position endangered if pro-democracy forces succeed in neighboring nations. This supposed plot is an attempt to paint the opposition as a tool of foreigners, rather than a genuine representation of a population fed up with Lukashenko’s seemingly endless rule (he’s been at the helm of Belarus since 1994).
In addition, the alleged conspiracy paints anti-Lukashenko forces, so far scrupulously non-violent, as prepared to kill him. And, as a bonus, it puts the Belarussian president and Putin on the same side of a crisis, potentially strengthening their bond. After all, without the support of the Kremlin, Lukashenko and his Moscow-dependent economy and security, might not last very long in power.
The plot claim gives Lukashenko an opportunity to get rid of well-known critics. Ziankovich is a longtime opposition member. He was granted political asylum in the US in 2011 and became a US citizen in 2017. Belarussian authorities have banned US consular officials from visiting Ziankovich in prison.
After more than 25 years in power, the Soviet-era Lukashenko nearly lost power last summer. In an election that even poll workers said was rife with fraud, (“The elections…were neither free nor fair. The announced results were fraudulent and did not convey legitimacy,” a US State Department spokesman said) he claimed victory, sparking massive protests led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the woman who launched her unlikely presidential candidacy after Lukashenko blocked her husband and other leading opposition members from running against him. Tikhanovskaya, now living in exile, became a global hero of democracy, an icon to Belarussians who want Lukashenko out.
Lukashenko is resorting to old populist tactics to cement his position. In a recent speech, he dug up stale antisemitic tropes to try to stoke patriotic resentment at home.
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The regime is trying to squeeze as much as it can from the alleged coup plot. It has kidnapped and arrested other opposition figures, and it aired a melodramatic documentary allegedly proving the case, titled “To Kill the President.” In audio that does not match his lip movements, Ziankovich is shown in secretly recorded footage declaring, “I … have the backing of Jewish capital in America,” another crass appeal to antisemitism.
Belarus, and other countries practicing transnational repression, are forcing the international community to take their threat more seriously. The United Nations is demanding that Lukashenko free political prisoners – now counting more than 500 people – and Washington is considering more sanctions. Lukashenko’s violation of civil aviation norms earlier this year already triggered international sanctions, and these latest actions should make him – along with his Moscow accomplice – more of a global pariah. The US and its allies should increase the pressure. Unless Lukashenko releases political prisoners, especially US citizens, the US and its allies should strengthen diplomatic and economic sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime.