On May 18, the country’s most popular Internet portal, TUT.by, was closed. In addition to the editorial office, journalists’ homes were searched, and 15 employees were arrested.
Then on Sunday, May 23, Lukashenko committed a direct act of state terrorism. A Belarusian fighter forced a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land at the Minsk airport. After the forced landing, Roman Protasevich, founder and former editor of the opposition Telegram channel Nexta, was arrested.
The European Union will be compelled to strengthen sanctions against Lukashenko. This has already been announced by Poland and Lithuania. Great Britain has warned of «serious consequences,» and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the situation «a dangerous incident that requires an international investigation.»
The heads of the Foreign Ministries of Czechia, Germany, Latvia, Poland, the U.S., Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, and Great Britain signed a joint statement condemning the threat of violence against a civilian aircraft. Lukashenko’s actions were an act of piracy on a route between two NATO and EU member states.
The Lithuanian police have already launched two investigations into the plane landing in Minsk in connection with the hijacking of the aircraft and in connection with the forced landing. Such a harsh reaction significantly increases the likelihood of an imminent strengthening in sanctions against Belarus.
Why did the self-proclaimed President Lukashenko go to such lengths to exacerbate the situation? Especially given that active protests in the country are suppressed and nothing threatens his government in the short term?
An assessment of Lukashenko’s next steps depends on the answers to these questions.
The hunt for an opposition member
«It looks like a KGB officer at the airport passed me… The funny thing is that he was next in line to have his documents checked, but he just turned around and left. Already at the gate. He also tried to photograph my documents on his phone when I opened my electronic forms,» wrote the Belarusian opposition member Roman Protasevich before the plane departed.
It is obvious that the security forces (Belarusian or Russian) have been «trailing» Protasevich for a long time. As soon as the Ryanair plane entered Belarusian airspace, Belarusian air traffic controllers began to demand an emergency landing from, citing the possibility of explosives on board. Lukashenko personally gave the command to turn the plane around.
A Belarusian Air Force MiG-29 fighter armed with air-to-air missiles was raised into the sky and which took part in the hijacking of the passenger plane. It forced the plane to turn around about 30 kilometers from the Lithuanian border. Having held the plane and passengers for about five hours at the Minsk airport, the plane was given the opportunity to continue its flight. As expected, there were no explosives on board.
At the same time, according to the Belarusian opposition, six passengers did not leave Minsk – two Belarusians and four Russians. Among them was Roman Protasevich, who was arrested immediately after landing. There was also news that his girlfriend had been arrested.
At home, Protasevich is threatened with charges under articles that provide for up to 15 years’ imprisonment. He is charged with committing «deliberate actions aimed at inciting social discord on the basis of professional affiliation.» If charged with terrorism, he could face the death penalty. Belarus remains the only European country where the death penalty has not yet been abolished.
«When the guy found out that we were going to land, he panicked. We were all taken off the plane and the dogs sniffed our things. This guy was taken to the side and his belongings were thrown onto the runway. We asked what happened. He said who he was and added, «This is where the death penalty awaits me.» He had already calmed down a little but was shaking. An officer was standing next to him the whole time, and soon he was taken away,» describes one of the passengers.
«An act of state terrorism»
Forcing a transit plane to land with a fighter jet is an unprecedented action, if only because states guarantee unimpeded air transit through their airspace. This brutal violation of international norms has led to a sharp reaction from Western countries. Some world leaders have already directly described Minsk’s actions as state terrorism.
«I strongly condemn the detention of Roman Protasevich by the Belarusian authorities after the hijacking of the Ryanair passenger plane. This is an act of state terrorism,» wrote Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingida Šimonyte made similar statements.
And Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda called for discussing the situation on May 24 at the EU summit. «I call on NATO and the EU to immediately respond to the threat that the regime in Belarus poses to international civil aviation,» he added.
Will the EU take decisive action?
The strongest response would be to recognize the Belarusian regime as a terrorist regime. However, so far this step seems unlikely. The decision to suspend air transit through Belarusian airspace, including flights to and from Belarus and Belavia flights, looks more likely. The ICAO – the International Civil Aviation Organization – is already being called on to take this step. This would at minimum lead to increased international isolation of Lukashenko and reduce the possibilities for financing the criminal regime. At the same time, it is possible that even this step would be insupportable for the EU, and the leaders of European countries will restrict themselves to their usual expressions of concern, postponing the issue of new sanctions until later.
Lukashenko shooting himself in the foot
Lukashenko’s actions have already received fiery admiration from many of «Putin’s friends,» including those in Ukraine. In addition to representatives from Opposition Platform – For Life, Deputy Yevgeny Shevchenko from Servant of the People, who supports the work of the Belarusian KGB, also «turned out» among them.
Why would the Belarusian dictator want this?
The likelihood that the EU will not limit itself to deep concern and impose new sanctions is quite high, especially considering Minsk’s blatant disregard for international law. New sanctions, even if they are not very tough, will only exacerbate problems in the Belarusian economy, thereby increasing Lukashenko’s dependence on Russian financial subsidies. Considering this, it is rather difficult to offer weighty arguments in favor of how Roman Protasevich was arrested.
The Nexta Telegram channel gained considerable popularity at the beginning of the Belarusian protests, and later its influence waned along with the number of protests. Why create new problems for yourself with the West in a situation when protests in the country are in fact being suppressed, and with nothing on the horizon to threaten Lukashenko’s regime?
Since the end of last year, Lukashenko’s opponents have never managed to hold a large-scale street protest. The Belarusian authorities managed to block the protest on Freedom Day on March 25, after which there have been no mass actions of disobedience in the country.
The situation is similar with the recent closure of the TUT.by portal, which also precipitated a sharp reaction from the West. The portal’s media status was withdrawn last year, at the beginning of the protests. That is, the authorities could have closed the portal at any time but did not. And there were reasons for this lack of reaction. TUT.by is not just the largest information portal in Belarus, which was read by almost half of the country’s internet users. It was an independent and not an opposition portal. Accordingly, the closure of TUT.by will force its readers to move to new sites. And it is unlikely that this move will be to pro-government media. That is, the authorities are pushing Belarusians towards greater radicalization.
With this step, Lukashenko has thoroughly mopped up the internal political arena and has demonstrated to the people of Belarus that the protests have been suppressed, and now it is time to deal with all the dissent. We have a long reach, and we can get you anywhere.
The closure of TUT.by and the arrest of Protasevich have something in common in that they have little effect on the situation in Belarus, but they create major international problems for Lukashenko.
And there could be at least two explanations for this.
A self-destructing system
One of the main secrets of the political longevity of the self-proclaimed president of Belarus is his ability to balance relations between the West and Russia. The imposed rapprochement with Russia following a
subsequent round of Western sanctions typically lasted for several years, after which Lukashenko began to gradually thaw relations with the West, releasing political prisoners and liberalizing the regime to a certain extent.
This was the case last time when sanctions imposed in 2010 were partially suspended in 2015. And this continually allowed Lukashenko to dodge Putin’s embrace and avoid deeper integration with Russia.
This strategy gave Belarusian political scientists reason to believe that after a certain time the government in Minsk would again try to resume dialogue with the West. And although the crimes committed against their own people after the 2020 elections significantly reduce the likelihood of a new warming with the West, they do not completely rule it out, as earlier Lukashenko even got away with killing political opponents.
Based on this logic, the current actions of Minsk are beneficial primarily to the Kremlin since they also narrow the already insignificant space for Lukashenko’s dialogue with the West and make him even more dependent on Russia.
In this case, the participation of the Russian special services in the special operation around the Ryanair aircraft looks quite plausible, as does Russia’s interest generally in the further deterioration of relations between Minsk and the West.
At the same time, the version supporting Russia’s direct involvement does not explain other high-profile events: the closure of TUT.by, the equating of national white-red-white symbols with Nazis, or the adoption of a law that allows security officials to use military weapons against protesters.
Therefore, another explanation looks more likely.
The 2020 protests have had a significant impact on the Lukashenko regime. If earlier there was a place for “systemic liberals,” now they have been completely replaced by the siloviki.
But reliance solely on the security forces has its own limitations. Now the Belarusian regime is doomed to search for more and more enemies and the security officials need to demonstrate their indispensability. And while in the short term this keeps the situation under control, it simultaneously shortens the days of the regime. The political system built by Lukashenko is gradually turning into a regime of self-destruction.
European Expert Association, iSANS expert
editor, European Truth
Source: European Truth
Материал доступен на русском языке: Инцидент с рейсом Ryanair