Watching closely: Analysis of Belarusian Diversion of Ryanair Flight

On May 23rd, 2021 the Belarussian government diverted a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius, removing and arresting Raman Pratesevic, a prominent Belarusian journalist and activist from the aircraft. The move is believed to be orchestrated by the Belarussian President, Alexander Lukashenko, as his latest attempt at subverting his opposition. Meanwhile, Belarus has claimed to divert the flight due to a bomb threat from the Palestinian group Hamas. Hamas has denied any such allegations, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has deemed Belarus’s claims “completely implausible,” invalidating any such justifications.

The following Monday, May 24th, the Belarusian authorities released a video of Mr. Pratasevich, where he appeared to be under duress. The activist was speaking rapidly, with his hands folded, saying he was in satisfactory health condition and was being treated “maximally correct and according to law” in custody. Pratasevich said that he was providing evidence to investigators about ‘organizing mass disturbances.” The incident has prompted EU leaders to call upon The European Air Traffic Agency – Eurocontrol – “to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU air space by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines.” Ukraine and the United Kingdom, acting in a similar manner, have banned all flights from and to Belarus and prohibited Belarusian airlines from entering its airspace. Meanwhile, European nations have urged the International Civil Aviation Organisation to investigate the “unprecedented move and what some said amounted to state terrorism or piracy.”

The incident has caused mass outrage among Western nations. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the executive European Commission, condemned Lukashenko’s actions, saying, “This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty”. And this outrageous behavior needs a strong answer.” The President added that the EU would hold its €3 billion EU investment and economic package for Belarus until it “turns democratic.” United States President, Joe Biden, expressed similar sentiment as he proclaimed that, “This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.” Biden swore to “join countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenko’s regime.”

The European Union has imposed sanctions on Belarus and the US and EU sanctions regarding the arrest of over 34,000 people and beating of thousands more, amidst protests over August 2020 election results. The election, which solidified Lukashenko’s sixth term, was deemed illegitimate by the opposition, leading to mass protests for the months that followed. Since the start of the protests, Lukashenko has progressively escalated the crackdown on his dissidents. The day Protasevic’s Ryanair flight was intercepted, he signed a new media decree, empowering the state to block any media, which threatens “national values,’ and banned foreign nationals ability to partake in media; the government must approve mass gatherings and live streams by media. Additionally, journalists cannot take part in “illegal” rallies. The law allows for the blocking of 4G and internet, actively inhibiting the population’s ability to communicate and access information. These unprecedented steps signify an intensification of the authoritarian nature of the Belarusian regime.

While the new set of sanctions aimed to hit Belarus’s biggest industries, including potash, oil, and the financial sector, to coerce the President’s hand to cease egregious human rights violations, in the past, imposed sanctions have not been effective in curbing his behavior. Thus there is no reason to believe they will be impactful on this occasion. On the contrary, Western sanctions may empower the Belarusian leader to blame the West for its economic detriments. Lukashenko has accused the West of instituting a “hybrid modern war” against Belarus, claiming that the sanctions and bans on the Belarusian airspace are “planned provocation.” Sticking to his narrative of a bomb threat, the leader proclaimed that, “We’ll fly over neutral territories, the Mediterranean Sea. But we will not get on our knees and we will not justify ourselves because there’s no reason to.”

The recent events signify a considerable loss for the European Union, as for years, it has promoted democratic reforms in Belarus, hoping to push it closer to the Western bloc and away from Russian influence. On the contrary, the EU’s attempts have drawn Belarus closer to Russia. Russia’s role in the incident remains unknown as the Kremlin has been wary of issuing any inflammatory signs of endorsement or lack thereof for Lukashenko’s actions. However, UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab noted that “It’s very difficult to believe that this kind of action could be taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow, but as I say it is unclear as yet.” Russian television has been supportive of Lukashenko in the past week as RT’s head, Margarita Simonyan, tweeted that the President “played it beautifully,” and new segments portraying Pratasevich as an extremist have come out. Moreover, Russia is refusing to permit European planes to enter Moscow, who have banned passage through Belarussian airspace, indicating, at minimum, continued backing of his regime. While Lukashenko has been eccentric and unpredictable throughout the years, even for Putin’s taste, the Kremlin would rather keep Belarus as an ally rather than a friend of the West.

Belarusian opposition has called upon European nations and the United States to aid them. Opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called on Tuesday for a meeting to discuss the situation in Belarus, asking the British government to invite Belarus’s democratic forces to the G7 summit in Cornwall next month; thus far, no plans have been made to make such additions to the summit, despite French President, Macron’s support. A similar sentiment has been expressed regarding the upcoming meeting between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden in Geneva in mid-June, as the opposition has asked for Washington to pressure Moscow on the topic. While the European Union, UK, and the United States continue to be outraged by the heightened authoritarianism of Lukashenko’s government, Russia’s support and infectivity of sanctions will likely keep the regime alive.

The Editor: Miriam Yakobashvili

Miriam Yakobashvili is an international relations BA student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She has focused on research in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, previously interning at the U.S. Ukraine Foundation and researching for a University of Georgetown Professor. Speaking four languages, English, Russian, Spanish, and Georgian, Miriam’s research interests vary with writings concerning Kurdistan Regional Government and occupied regions around the world. 

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