After Belarus forced a Ryanair flight to land so it could arrest a prominent opposition figure, the EU is getting tougher with Minsk by banning flights to and from Belarus and preparing new sanctions.
(CN) — Tensions over Belarus escalated on Tuesday with the European Union banning air travel to and from Belarus and the exiled Belarusian opposition leader calling on the United States and European capitals to take stronger actions against Minsk.
Meeting in Brussels, EU leaders also said they were preparing a new package of sanctions against Belarus and demanded the release of Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old Belarusian journalist and opposition activist who was arrested Sunday in Minsk after the Ryanair flight he was on was rerouted to the Belarusian capital in an alleged Belarusian KGB secret service operation.
EU diplomats are decrying Minsk’s actions as “aviation piracy” and the latest abhorrent act by a dictatorial and repressive regime at their back door that cannot be tolerated. The EU, often seen as ineffective and largely toothless vis-à-vis authoritarian powers such as Russia and Turkey, was praised Tuesday for its hardening stance against Belarus.
“Until Protasevich’s kidnapping, the EU’s reaction to what was taking place in Belarus was tepid,” wrote Judy Dempsey, the editor-in-chief for Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think tank.
Dempsey said that the limited sanctions the EU imposed last year against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and a few other officials and entities “reinforced the perception that the EU was powerless.” But the arrest of Protasevich has “finally forced the EU’s hand,” she wrote.
Like many commentators in Europe, Dempsey supported the EU’s tougher actions, but she said much more needs be done, such as giving Belarusians facing persecution visas and providing more financial support to the Belarusian opposition. On Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU had a 3 billion euro ($3.7 billion) investment package waiting to be spent on Belarus once “it becomes democratic.”
In Lithuania, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the EU and the U.S. to put even more pressure on Lukashenko. Tikhanovskaya has declared herself the winner of the disputed August elections. She fled to Lithuania after the election and has tried to build international support against Lukashenko’s regime from her base in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.
In Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia, the official Belarusian flag was replaced with the red-and-white Belarusian flag used by the opposition outside an ice hockey arena where Belarus is participating in an international hockey tournament.
This show of solidarity by Riga Mayor Martins Stakis for Tikhanovskaya and the Belarusian opposition was fiercely condemned by Belarus and prompted Minsk to expel Latvia’s ambassador in Belarus, Einars Semanis, and the embassy staff.
“We cannot leave such provocative actions unanswered,” said Belarusian Foreign Affairs Minister Vladimir Makei, according to Belta, the Belarusian state news agency. He equated the flag snub to an “act of state vandalism” and called it “a cynical violation of all and any norms of international law.”
The red-and-white flag used by the opposition was previously adopted by a republican and democratic pre-Soviet Belarusian state. But its use today is seen by the pro-government side as a highly provocative symbol and akin to showing support for fascism, a suggestion rejected by the opposition. The mass protests against Lukashenko became a sea of people displaying red and white.
On Tuesday, Minsk presented its version of events that led to the arrest of Protasevich and said it had behaved properly by escorting the airplane to Minsk after it received an alleged bomb threat from Hamas, the militant group fighting Israel, that warned the Ryanair plane was going to be blown up over Vilnius. Minsk said it was investigating the bogus bomb threat and welcomed an international probe. It claimed the pilot of the Ryanair plane took the decision to fly to Minsk.
Western leaders dismissed Minsk’s account as false.
“The explanations given so far by the Belarusian government for the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk are absurd and not credible,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
Late Monday, EU leaders said they were preparing a new package of sanctions against Belarus and blocking flights to and from Belarus, a move that will mostly affect Belavia, the state-run Belarusian airline. EU leaders also urged aircraft to avoid flying over Belarus. They called for a probe by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a move Belarus said it welcomed.
The EU said the forced landing was unprecedented and illegal. Belarusian and Russian diplomats and pundits shot back, claiming similar incidents had taken place with the support of Western countries and that their outrage now was hypocritical.
In Moscow, Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, pointed to the forced landing in 2013 of Evo Morales’ plane in a search for Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower. Morales, the Bolivian president at the time, was flying back home from a meeting in Russia, where Snowden had fled.
Zakharova also brought up more obscure incidents, such as when the personal plane of a former Russian deputy finance minister was forced to land in Florida and a 2016 Belavia flight that was forced to return to Kiev, Ukraine, leading to the arrest of Armen Martirosyan, a journalist and activist who opposed the 2014 uprising that led to the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Martirosyan was wanted by Ukrainian authorities.
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Belarus had acted in line with international rules involving a terrorist threat and argued that a Belarusian fighter jet was sent to escort the Ryanair flight because it posed a threat to a nearby Belarusian nuclear power plant.
Zakharova said Protasevich was on a Belarusian list of “persons involved in extremist activities” and his arrest was an “internal matter of Belarus.”
The forced landing of the Ryanair flight likely violated international rules, according to experts. The International Civil Aviation Organization said in a statement that it was convening an urgent meeting Thursday. The United Nations aviation body said it was “strongly concerned” by what happened to the Ryanair flight and said it “could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention.” The Chicago Convention, signed in 1944, is a global agreement laying out the rules of international airspace.
In addition to calling for a probe and preparing new sanctions, EU leaders also demanded Belarus immediately release Protasevich and his 23-year-old Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was also on the plane and detained in Minsk.
A video of Protasevich emerged on Belarusian state media late Monday. In the disturbing video, which his supporters and family say appears to be a forced confession made under duress and possibly following physical abuse, Protasevich says he is being treated well in a Minsk detention center.
“I’m in SIZO [a pre-trial detention center] No. 1 in Minsk,” he says, speaking in Russian. “I can declare that I have no health problems, including with my heart and with any other organs. The officers are treating me with the utmost correctness and according to the law. I’m continuing to cooperate with the investigation and confess to the fact of organizing mass riots in the city of Minsk.”
Protasevich faces harsh prison sentences for helping organize the protests against Lukashenko. A death sentence could even be imposed on him if he is found guilty of terrorism. Belarus is the last nation in Europe to carry out executions.
Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader, said the video showed Protasevich had been beaten.
“He says that he is being treated lawfully, but he is clearly beaten and under pressure,” she said. “There is no doubt that he may be tortured.”
Tikhanovskaya said Protasevich was taken hostage and is now one of scores of political prisoners in Belarus. Tikhanovskaya’s husband, an anti-corruption blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, is among those in prison, allegedly for his political activities, which included seeking to run against Lukashenko in the presidential elections. After her husband was imprisoned, Tikhanovskaya jumped into the race and garnered a surprising level of support.
Tikhanovskaya said she had spoken with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and EU leaders and urged them to put more pressure on Lukashenko. G7 leaders are considering inviting her to a meeting in Great Britain in June where they could put Belarus at the top of the agenda.
“Let me emphasize: suspension of flights over Belarus doesn’t solve the real problem,” Tikhanovskaya said in her call for tougher sanctions and more support for the Belarusian opposition. “The problem is the terrorist regime that rigged elections last year, regularly violates the constitution, and breaks international law. Lukashenka’s regime is a threat to regional and European security. The only solution to this crisis is to conduct free and fair elections and democratic reforms.”
Lukashenko has run Belarus since he was first elected in 1994, turning the country of 9.5 million people into what many see as a Soviet-style dictatorship.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.