Belarusian leaders and activists put on Russia’s wanted list

Belarusian leaders and activists put on Russia’s wanted list
The former editor-in-chief of Telegram channel Nexta Roman Protasevich is on the wanted list in Russia. The editorial choices Nexta has made and the pro-active messages it sends have played a major role in co-ordinating Belarus' mass demonstrations.
By Ben Aris in Berlin October 8, 2020

Several high-profile Belarusian opposition leaders and activist have been put on the police wanted list in Russia, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the nominal winner of the August 9 presidential elections, it was reported on October 7.

Tikhanovskaya was the most prominent of the names that were listed as wanted criminals by the Russian authorities, reports Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti.

The notice is a result of the police co-operation between Belarus and Russia. The Belarusian authorities have opened three dozen criminal investigations into the newly established Coordinating Council, of which Tikhanovskaya is a member, which is accused of trying to organise a coup d’état.

Most of the members of the Presidium of the Council are already either in jail in Minsk or have fled into exile. Tikhanovskaya left for Lithuania shortly after the elections after she was threatened by the security services at a meeting at the Central Election Commission (CEC) offices on August 14.

Her colleague and fellow presidential election campaigner Maria Kolesnikova was imprisoned after the authorities tried to forcibly expel her from Belarus, but were thwarted when she ripped up her passport on the Ukrainian border. Kolesnikova has also been charged with trying to organise a coup.

The third women of the trio who ran against Lukashenko is Veronika Tsepkalo, who also left the country shortly after the election with her children and joined her husband Valery Tsepkalo in Moscow.

Valery has also been added the Russian wanted list. He was one of the three leading presidential candidates running against Belarus' self-appointed President Alexander Lukashenko – the other two are video blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky and ex-banker Vladimir Babariko – but was barred from the race after the CEC invalidated half of his mandatory petition signatures. Candidates have to gather at least 100,000 names, but Tsepkalo only had 60,000 left after the CEC had finished with his list.

Valery Tsepkalo also left almost immediately after the election following reports of his imminent arrest. The couple have since left Russia, when it became clear they were not safe there either and were last reported to be in Ukraine.

Amongst the other high-profile names on Russia’s wanted list is the 22-year-old Stepan Svetlov (known as Putilo), founder of the Nexta Telegram channel, which has become the de facto co-ordinator of the mass protests and the main source of independent information in the country after the authorities closed down most of the other messaging apps and have since been shuttering the leading newspapers and online news channels.

However, Putilo now lives in Poland, where he is a university student, and the Nexta channel is largely run from offices in Warsaw, where it is under the protection of the Polish state.

And the former editor-in-chief of Nexta, Roman Protasevich, is also wanted in Russia. This means that a criminal case has been instituted against him in Belarus. Protasevich has been a significant figure in the protests as the editorial choices of what material to run on Nexta, which filters the content sent to it from over 2mn anonymous members, sets the political tone for the protests. In addition, the Nexta editors pro-actively sends out messages calling for demonstration actions, set the dates and themes of the marches, and marshal the crowds on the day in near real time to avoid police countermeasures. Protasevich is also based in Poland.

Nexta has been a major problem for Lukashenko in that it is able to co-ordinate the actions of hundreds of thousands of Belarusians, and the crowds that gather as a result are so big that they simply overwhelm the security service’s attempt to prevent demonstrations.