The EU is faced with a new crisis as it tries to figure out how to punish Belarus for an apparent state operation that forced a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius to land in Minsk so a prominent opposition activist and journalist could be arrested.
(CN) — The political crisis in Belarus is dramatically back on the central stage in Europe after authorities in Minsk allegedly orchestrated a military and spy operation to force a Ryanair passenger jet to land so they could arrest a 26-year-old opposition activist and blogger aboard the airplane.
This apparently flagrant violation of international law to arrest a prominent political opponent of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime was condemned by European and American diplomats as a “hijacking,” “aviation piracy” and “state terrorism.” It immediately threw the European Union into a new crisis over how to handle the authoritarian regimes of Belarus and Russia on its eastern borders.
This apparent hijacking operation took place on Sunday when a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of the Baltic nation of Lithuania, which is a member of NATO and the EU, was told by Belarusian traffic control operators to land in Minsk because of a bomb threat. A Belarusian MiG fighter jet was also deployed to reroute the Ryanair plane to the Minsk international airport.
On board the plane was Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian activist and journalist who co-founded Nexta, a channel on Telegram, an encrypted social media platform that became a nerve center in anti-government protests that broke out after Lukashenko was declared the winner of a bogus election in August 2020. Nexta became the go-to platform where Belarusians shared stories, photographs and videos about police beatings, torture and mass arrests as well as moving testimony about the mass uprising against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
After the plane landed in Minsk, Protasevich, who was placed on Belarus’ terrorist list last year for his work to organize anti-government protests, was arrested and taken away. His whereabouts were unclear on Monday. Also detained was his 22-year-old Russian girlfriend.
Protasevich reportedly became distraught after he realized the plane was being rerouted to land in Minsk and told a fellow passenger that a “death penalty” awaited him after he was arrested. Belarus is the only country in Europe that still carries out executions.
The Ryanair plane was on the tarmac in Minsk for about six hours while authorities searched the plane, luggage and passengers. No bomb was found.
Belarusian secret service agents were allegedly on the same plane and carried out a plot to trail Protasevich in Athens and get the plane rerouted to Minsk.
Ryanair’s boss, Michael O’Leary, said it appeared that KGB agents on the plane did not get back on the flight to Vilnius. Belarus’ secret services retained their Soviet-era name.
Belarusian state media reported that Lukashenko personally ordered the plane to land in Minsk and portrayed Belarus as helping an airplane in distress.
The brazen plot to arrest Protasevich – who was residing as a political exile in Poland – by rerouting a civilian jet taking passengers across Belarusian air space between two EU capitals was met with disbelief and outrage by European and American leaders.
“The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a tweet.
Zbigniew Rau, Poland’s foreign affairs minister, called it a hijacking and “an act of state terrorism committed on Lukashenko’s order.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded an international investigation and called for Protasevich’s immediate release.
“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Blinken said in a statement.
EU leaders were to talk Monday evening at a regular European Council meeting about what actions to take. A raft of options were being looked at, including wide-ranging sanctions against Belarus. NATO and the U.S. were also considering what punitive steps to take. The EU slapped sanctions on Lukashenko and others in his regime last year.
Such a flagrant and brazen operation by Lukashenko signals that the Belarusian president’s core strategy is to carry on his regime’s violent and relentless crackdown on the opposition, even if that means hurting his country’s economy by inviting sanctions and driving Belarus further into the arms of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The incident leaves EU leaders facing difficult decisions and at risk of appearing, once again, weak in the face of authoritarian regimes. The EU’s foreign policy is viewed by many as mostly toothless, leaving the union of 27 nations unable to effectively handle troubles at its borders.
“The EU failed to take decisive action when Russia shot down flight MH17, killing 200 Dutch citizens and almost 100 citizens of other countries,” said Michiel van Hulten, the director of Transparency International Europe, in a tweet, referring to a passenger jet shot down during the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014. “Business with Russia carried on as normal, and Putin carried on his killing spree. Let’s hope we’ve learnt our lesson.”
Annalena Baerbock, the chancellor candidate for the surging Greens in the upcoming German elections, said the EU “cannot accept this unprecedented escalation, threats to our freedom in Europe and massive threats to European civil aviation.” She called for new sanctions that target Belarus’ state-owned companies.
Many saw in Belarus’ actions the possibility that the Kremlin’s hand was involved too.
“Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval,” commented Timothy Snyder, a Yale University history professor.
Russian diplomats came to the defense of Belarus.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said the West was hypocritical for claiming that this was an unprecedented incident. She pointed to a 2013 incident when an airplane carrying then-Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to land in Austria so it could be searched for Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower. European officials said they were led to believe Snowden was aboard the plane, which had left from Russia. Snowden was not on the plane and lives in Russia.
In Russia and Belarus, Protasevich is depicted as an agitator paid by U.S. interests and acting on behalf of U.S. sponsors seeking to overthrow the Belarusian state.
In the past, according to his social media postings, Protasevich worked with right-wing nationalist groups in Belarus and joined the anti-Russian protests in Ukraine that led to the overthrow of the pro-Kremlin government in Kiev with the Maidan protests in 2014. He also has worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.-government funded news organization with a history of supporting anti-communist movements, and he once boasted of visiting the U.S. State Department.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.