Last Sunday, the Belarusian air force sent armed fighter jets to force Ryanair flight FR4978, which was en route from Greece to Lithuania, to land in Minsk.
The stated purpose was to defuse a bomb inside the plane, allegedly set up by none other than Hamas, the terrorist group that runs the Gaza Strip.
However, no bomb was ever searched for.
Instead, journalist and opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were detained and now face up to 15 years imprisonment.
The brazen act of state-sponsored air-piracy marks a new and extraordinary chapter in a campaign of repression against civil society and opposition waged by President Alexander Lukashenko after the disputed 2020 election, which the EU considers “neither free nor fair”.
In recent months, Belarus has seen the destruction of the largest non-government-controlled media outlet (TUT.BY) and the use of lethal force by the police against protesters. Discussions on building camps for “unwanted parts of society” and hunting down opponents abroad – like Pavel Sheremed in Kyiv in 2016 – have been leaked, exposing the regime’s brutal nature. Protasevich’s capture seems to underpin the point: the opposition should not feel safe.
In response, the European Union has called for a deep investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization to determine the extent of the breach of international transportation law. Meeting in Brussels earlier this week, leaders also agreed to draft new personal and economic sanctions to be implemented in June if Lukashenko does not change course (it is almost certain he won’t). The two issues that Europeans now must face are: first, the abduction of Roman Protasevich himself, and second, the Belarusian political crisis, which is the root cause of the first problem.
The forced landing of the Ryanair flight was not only a breach of international transportation law. The plane was departing and landing in Schengen-area countries, meaning Belarus had no jurisdiction over the cargo carried, let alone the passengers. Technically, Belarus kidnapped two persons from EU territory. If Europe does not react strongly to such abuses, further incursions and violations of its sovereignty are to be expected. This deterioration would jeopardise the bloc’s efforts to create a safe environment for the Belarussian opposition in Europe, as Lukashenko would keep on applying pressure.
The current investigation into the exact circumstances and chain of command behind Sunday’s incident is a first start. But Brussels should go beyond that, labelling at least parts of the KGB, the country’s national intelligence agency, and the special police as terrorist organisations – much like the military wing of Hezbollah. This would facilitate counter-intelligence services across the EU to act against the KGB and its affiliated structures across the continent, hence preventing similar operations from happening.
However, the wider problem is Lukashenko’s illegitimate rule, for which political prisoners serve a dual purpose: to suppress dissent and to negotiate with the West, extorting concessions to his rule. For the time being, the regime’s only foreign lifeline is Moscow. But relations between Moscow and Minsk are anything but easy: the Kremlin wants Lukashenko to diversify power and integrate deeper with Russia, which is exactly what Lukashenko declines to do.
Lukashenko in turn wants Moscow to support Belarus financially and economically, which it has so far reluctantly and half-heartedly committed to. In the Kremlin, the security services – who are de-facto running Belarus affairs right now – are in favour of supporting Lukashenko at almost any cost. Other ministries and government branches seem to be more sceptical, however, at least questioning behind closed doors the wisdom of keeping the besieged president afloat.
It’s on this divide that the EU could play a role. By forbidding the trade of Belarusian government bonds and imposing sectoral sanctions on the oil and chemical industry, Brussels could drastically increase the price Moscow has to pay to maintain its Minsk apparatus. The Kremlin would then be forced to consider other policy options.
Still, bringing about a strong reaction is not that easy in the European Council, despite this week’s rapid show of unity. There are doubts as to what extent sectoral sanctions should be applied and whether or not economic pressure may drive Lukashenko further into Vladimir Putin’s hands (a somewhat illogical thinking given that Belarus is a Union-State ally of Russia and relations are already as close as both leaders can tolerate or afford).
For ordinary Belarusians living under fear and oppression, there is little to lose from European pressure.
Gustav C. Gressel, PhD, is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
This article was originally published on The Briefing, Euronews' weekly political newsletter. Click here to subscribe to The Briefing.