The week that the Belarusian government intercepted a RyanAir flight and arrested Roman Protasevich, western governments and media expressed outrage. News outlets described him variously as a journalist, blogger, activist, and leader of the opposition to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
They did not describe him as a fascist and fighter in the Ukrainian Azov Battalion. Prominent human rights groups accused this militia of war crimes while it fought Russian separatists in Ukraine. They flaunt their Nazi sympathies, using the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich as one of their original logos. Currently, they have tilted it to the right. Photos of their soldiers show them sporting Nazi tattoos. The U.S. blocked aid to the Azov battalion in 2018 because of its white supremacist ideology.
Protasevich claimed that he was covering the war in Ukraine as a journalist. However, photos in several online publications show him in uniform and armed with an automatic weapon. An issue of the Azov recruiting magazine appears to have his image on the cover.
Western media also praised presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and her party as “pro-democracy” activists in their bid to overturn Lukashenko. As they have with Protasevich, they built up a heroic narrative for her: an ordinary housewife married to a dissident whom Lukashenko imprisoned for his criticism of the government. They did not mention that one of her proxy speakers, Nikolai Solyanik, praised Hitler during a rally on behalf of Tikhanovskaya in Grodno and said Belarusians needed a leader like him. The opposition movement Tikhanovskaya leads expelled him, but only after outrage on social media; Tikhanovskaya chalked the episode up to his “extreme psychological conditions.” Other members of the opposition have expressed sympathy for Ukrainian Nazi collaborators in WWII.
And we must not forget Alexander Navalny. No one deserves to have their government poison them, and he has shown great courage in returning to Russia, knowing of his probable imprisonment and worse. However, he has also referred to Chechens as cockroaches, wants to ban Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia (many of whom are Russian citizens) from entering ethnic Russian areas, and deport all immigrants. Navalny supported a 2013 campaign, “Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” which pledged to halt government subsidies to the poorer and less developed non-ethnic Russian republics in the North Caucasus.
“I consider Navalny the most dangerous man in Russia,” Engelina Tareyeva — a member of the Yabloko party that expelled Navalny in 2007 — wrote of him. “You don’t have to be a genius to understand that the most horrific thing that could happen in our country would be the nationalists coming to power.”
In February 2021, Amnesty International withdrew its designation of Navalny as a “prisoner of conscience.”
As we mature, we learn to hold multiple realities in tension. Our parents may commit crimes, love their children unconditionally, and care about cruelty to animals. Our friends might be generous, fountains of wit and emotional wrecks. A government may care about providing food, shelter, and education to its citizens but repress minorities. Another government may talk of democratic freedoms for its citizens but only grant them to certain sectors of society and actively work to suppress them in other countries.
Our media need to grow up. Journalists can be fascists. People resisting authoritarian governments can also be fascists or willing to work with fascists. And just because people oppose authoritarian regimes does not mean they are pro-Democracy.