Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since its independence in 1994, is under fire after his regime ordered a Ryanair flight going through Belarusian airspace to reroute to Minsk Airport and ordered the arrest of opposition leader Roman Protasevich before letting the plane to leave again. There has been strong condemnation as leaders say Lukashenko hijacked an airplane to fulfil his political agenda.
The bizarre incident occurred earlier last Sunday when the Ryanair flight, which departed from Athens, was flying over Belarusian airspace in transit to its destination of Vilnius, Lithuania. Minutes before the commercial plane was bound to leave Belarusian airspace, Lukashenko himself ordered authorities to force the plane to change its original destination and immediately land in the closest airport (Minsk) due to an alleged “bomb threat”.
It appears that KGB agents (the Belarusian, not Soviet, secret police) have previously boarded the plane in Athens and began a fight with the Ryanair crew midair, arguing there was an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) in the plane and forced the crew to dispatch an SOS call, which is when the Belarusian Air Force dispatched jet fighters to “escort” the plane back to land, according to the editor-in-chief of Nexta TV, the largest news telegram channel in the eastern nation.
Once inland the Belarus security forces immediately arrested opposition leader Roman Protasevich and took him into police custody. Protasevich, a journalist who is a prominent writer in Nexta TV and critic of Europe’s oldest dictatorship, fled to Poland in 2019 where he was granted political asylum as he is now facing up to 15 years in jail.
According to some witnesses in the plane, a Belarusian opposition activist was extremely nervous as soon as he found out of the reroute towards Minsk. With reports saying he started telling his fellow passenger he was “facing the death penalty”, a friend of Protasevich told the BBC that he already “felt something bad” in Athens as he saw suspicious people boarding the same plane.
The initial response by the European Union and Ryanair was timid and did not mention the kidnapping of Protasevich. The EU Commissioner of Transportation, Adina Valean, tweeted a short statement where she informed the public when the plane had taken off from Minsk and said it was “great news for everyone especially the families and friends of people onboard. Ryanair also followed a similar approach and issued a bland statement not mentioning the arrest of Protasevich.
However, the initially weak tone by Ryanair and the EU was quickly supplanted by a more forceful condemnation over the state-sponsored hijacking of a commercial flight. The chief executive of Ryanair condemned the action and called it “a case of state-sponsored hijacking… state-sponsored piracy” in an interview with the Irish Newstalk radio program.
The EU has followed suit, with Commissioner Ursula Von Der Leyen (the top official of the EU bureaucratic apparatus) strongly condemning the unprecedented actions of Lukashenko, calling them “outrageous” and announcing that the countries of the union will close European airspace to Belarusian planes and prohibiting European airlines to fly over the eastern European territory.
The U.S has also accompanied the condemnation of their European allies towards Lukashenko, with the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issuing a statement on Sunday where the U.S “strongly condemns” the diverting of the plane, demanded the “immediate release” of Protasevich, said they were closely working with EU, Greek, and Lithuanian authorities on how to respond to this incident and expressed the country’s support to the popular demands of freedom and democracy in Belarus.
The Belarusian economy has shown some damage due to the fallout of Lukashenko’s decision to create an international incident in order to arrest a Belarusian journalist. With Reuters reporting that Belarusian bond shave slumped significantly after both the EU and the US condemnations of the plane hijacking, as many investors fearing Minsk will be hit with economic sanctions over the issue.
Lukashenko has faced significant opposition at home since August 2020, when he “won” a sixth term in office with more than 80% of the vote in an election that has been widely considered to be manipulated and fraudulent. Since then, tens of thousands of Belarusians went to the streets to protest against Lukashenko’s grip on power and calling for democracy and open elections in their nation.
Although the protests have been both unprecedented and massive, Lukashesko’s regime (often known as “Europe’s last dictator”)has been able to retain power, in part due to a brutal crackdown by security forces against the protesters, with HumanRights Watch reporting at least 25,000 people being detained by Belarusian police by mid-November 2020.
The latest affront by Lukashenko shows the lengths he is willing to go in order to eliminate any potential threat against his iron-fist regime. Will the West muster a response strong enough to make Minks regret its decision? Or will the condemnation stop in strong-worded press releases?