29 May 2021

Belarus Is Becoming Europe’s North Korea

By Vladislav Davidzon,

On Sunday, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was forced out of the sky as it traversed Belarusian airspace. The government of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has clung to power despite widespread protests following a rigged election last August, ordered the plane to make an emergency landing in Minsk under the pretext of a faked bomb threat, carried out by Belarusian security operatives. In an audacious move that sparked a European security crisis, Belarus authorities scrambled a fully armed MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept the civilian flight.

This unprecedented act, denounced by European officials as air piracy, was all aimed at capturing a single man: Roman Protasevich, one of the Belarussian dissidents who has been a constant thorn in Lukashenko’s side. Protasevich was pulled off the plane, along with several other Belarusian and Russian nationals. Vilnius has become a hub of opposition to Lukashenko’s rule, with Lithuania rejecting Lukashenko’s legitimacy and providing support and protection to exiles.

I was already in Vilnius to interview Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the crisis began. She told Foreign Policy: “We demand the invitation of an investigation into this incident and the start of the process of suspending Belarus’s membership … in the International Civil Aviation Organization. The time for statements has passed. It is obvious that the Belarusians expect decisive action and help from the international community. From now on, not a single person from any country in the world who flies over Belarus is guaranteed basic security.”

Amid the opposition, struggling to process the news, there is growing fear and panic. One of Tikhanovskaya’s aides said on Sunday evening it now seems Lukashenko’s security forces are capable of reaching them anywhere. Unless the European Union acts, there may be no safe haven for a beleaguered democratic opposition. Exiles bleakly compared their home country to Somalia, known for piracy at sea, or to the isolated and murderous state of North Korea.

Exiled 26-year old Belarusian journalist Protasevich was a central figure in the work of the NEXTA news channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging act that has become a key part of opposition in Russia and Belarus. Along with some intrepid independent journalists still based in Belarus itself, NEXTA and other Telegram channels have continued to provide critical coverage of the repressions and arrests of political prisoners in Belarus. The crisis comes a week after Tut.By, the last serious independent news site operating and reporting in Belarus, was shuttered by authorities, with some of its employees charged with tax-related crimes.

Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend were detained by Belarusian security service agents on the tarmac of Minsk’s airport. Before boarding the flight in Athens, Protasevich had sent messages to his colleagues that suspicious characters were monitoring him and had ostentatiously attempted to photograph his travel documents at the boarding gate. Several of his fellow passengers reportedly stated the terrified journalist had expressed concerns he would be “executed” and had attempted to hand his cellular phones and laptop computer to his girlfriend to keep them from being taken.

Yet the flight was just 2 minutes away from penetrating Lithuanian airspace, spurring a bout of criticism for the decision to comply with the order. But with an armed fighter jet escorting them, the Ryanair pilots understandably felt they had little choice. The plane was detained before being allowed to continue the flight to Vilnius—with the remaining passengers from 12 different European nations allowed to leave Belarus after being essentially held hostage for 7 hours. Four Russian nationals and several other Belarusian passengers, presumably also detained or themselves being intelligence officers, did not return to the flight.

The incident has fundamentally transformed a situation that had threatened to develop into a political stalemate and has forced European diplomats to confront a situation many of them may likely have preferred to go away quietly. The Polish government initiated an investigation into the incident early on Monday. The brazen act was categorized by many observers as an act of “state piracy.” Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary seconded that view as he said it represented an instance of “state-sponsored hijacking.”

By Monday afternoon in Europe, numerous foreign-policy officials throughout the European Union were engaged in a concerted debate over whether Belarus’s airspace should be permanently closed off to flights in and out of Europe. Calls for a serious and concerted response to the crisis built up steam, such as a fourth set of sanctions and a total “no-fly zone” being imposed over Belarusian territory. By Monday evening, the United Kingdom was the first European country to instruct its national airlines not to traverse Belarusian airspace and to cancel the landing rights of Belavia, the Belarusian national airline.

But that sparked a new round of arguments within the opposition about the dangers of complete isolation. Minsk already locked down its land borders last year when it accused NATO of preparing to invade the country. If the national airport is blocked, international travel in and out of Belarus will become formally impossible, save for those brave enough to sneak across the border in an echo of the days of the Iron Curtain.

Belarus seems undeterred. On Monday afternoon, Minsk authorities stopped a Lufthansa flight from taking off for 2 hours while citing an amorphous terrorism threat. The incident was allegedly based on an emailed bomb threat, and all passengers were forced to disembark from the plane while it was searched. It’s unclear whether the authorities were attempting to provide a transparently flimsy justification for Sunday’s piracy or simply exerting their power—perhaps fearing other exiles on the plane. A bizarre press conference followed, ludicrously attempting to blame the threat on Hamas.

Lukashenko has often been referred to as the last dictator in Europe. But Belarusians have struggled not to be defined by their country’s authoritarianism and to keep engagement with the rest of Europe alive. If travel ends, the country’s isolation may be complete and its transformation into Europe’s North Korea ever closer.

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