Lukashenko’s transparent act of air piracy sent a clear message to dissidents around the world that authoritarian states no longer feel any need to respect international norms in pursuit of their prey.
Two weeks ago, Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend boarded Ryanair flight FR4978 carrying 122 passengers from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania. Earlier in the departure lounge, Roman had noticed that he was being followed by a man he assumed a KGB agent, who had been trying to photograph his documents while in the queue to board the flight. Two hours after take-off, when the aircraft was about to enter Lithuanian airspace, the pilot of the plane received orders from Belorussian air-traffic control to change course and divert to Minsk airport, as there was a ‘suspected bomb’ on board. To encourage the Ryanair pilot to obey, a Belorusian Mig-29 fighter aircraft had been scrambled on the orders of Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus and commonly known as ‘Europe’s last dictator’. When the Ryanair flight landed at Minsk airport, armed police forced all passengers with their luggage to disembark so that the aircraft could be ‘searched for bombs’, which of course they didn’t find. After seven hours delay, the plane eventually landed at Vilnius, the intended destination. Five passengers were missing. Three were KGB officers, possibly Russian. The other two, the Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a final-year international law student at the European Humanities University in Vilnius, were immediately arrested.
Lukashenko’s transparent act of air piracy sent a clear message to dissidents around the world that authoritarian states no longer feel any need to respect international norms in pursuit of their prey. The new reality for hundreds of dissidents is that even crossing the airspace of their countries could now pose a new threat. A new dimension has been added to earlier notorious acts against dissidents, such as Russia’s use of radioactive poisons and nerve agents against enemies of the Kremlin in London and Salisbury, and Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
In fact, Lukashenko’s stunt has no precedent. By ignoring rules and regulations designed to give pilots confidence for the safety of their flight, the Belarusian air-traffic control staff was ordered to lie to Ryanair pilots simply to allow Lukashenko to get his hands on Protasevich. At the time of the order, the aircraft was far closer to its destination of Vilnius than Minsk, so if there really had been a bomb on board, the long diversion significantly increased the danger to the passengers; perhaps a reason why Lukashenko needed a Mig-29 to ‘persuade’ the pilots to divert to Minsk. Furthermore, by showing that he is prepared to falsely detain a European-owned and registered aircraft, Lukashenko has signposted that he is prepared to break all relations with Europe and pitch his flag firmly in the direction of Russia. President Putin was delighted, as confirmed by his head of RT, a Russian state propaganda channel, when she tweeted: ‘Never thought I would be jealous of Belarus. But now I’m jealous. The old man has done it beautifully!’
Vladimir Putin might even have been inspired to take a lead from Lukashenko. On Friday he refused to guarantee that he would not use a warplane to force an overflying commercial flight from London to land in Russia. At a press conference at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin was asked whether he would land a plane flying over Russia if a ‘political foe’ was on board. After a short pause, he replied ‘I won’t say’, provoking laughter and applause from his Russian audience, but sending a chill through Britain and other Western countries.
Roman Protasevich doesn’t look much like a threat to Europe’s last dictator. What this blogger and co-recipient of the European Parliament’s ‘Sakharov prize for freedom of thought’ has done, however, is regarded just as dangerous by Lukashenko’s regime. He has helped to ensure that the world knows about the bravery of the pro-democracy movement in Belarus. Ironically, he is now showing the world just how brutal is Lukashenko’s rule. The day after the highjack of the Ryanair flight, a short video recording of Protasevich surfaced on a pro-regime Telegram channel. Looking tense and sporting what looks like a bruising on his cheek and, according to his father, missing teeth, the journalist denied any ill-treatment or health problems and claimed to be cooperating with the authorities, including ‘confessing’ to organising mass riots in Minsk! This attempt by the authorities to reveal Protasevich’s self-conviction of crimes, fools nobody. Victims of Lukashenko who were later released from Belarusian jails have confirmed that they too made ‘confessions’ only after torture and threats to their families.
Belarusian prisons are not holiday camps. They are dangerous places for anyone arrested, particularly for political crimes, regardless of the official charges. Former prisoners who were lucky enough to survive the experience have testified to being subject to severe physical abuse, including torture and even rape. Many have died in suspicious circumstances. Just last week, Vitold Ashurak, an activist member of Belarusia’s Popular Front, died after suffering a ‘fatal heart attack’ while serving a five-year prison sentence just for taking part in protests. His body was returned to his family with his bruised and bleeding head wrapped in bandages, an unusual feature of a heart attack. Roman Protasevich can expect no less a treatment.
In a move not so far from Soviet practices, the Belarusian main security agency, under the order of Lukashenko, recently put Protasevich’s name on a list of terrorists and enemies of the state. What had he done to deserve this? Last year, during the demonstrations following the phony elections, the 26-year old journalist and editor of the Poland-based online news service NEXTA, had simply broadcast footage of the enormous crowds across the country who were protesting against the rigged election result. Because of the difficulty experienced by foreign media in reporting first-hand from the former Soviet state, Protasevich has become the window to the world of Lukashenko’s thuggery. No wonder he was furious, demanding revenge.
In many ways, Belarus has undergone profound political changes in the past year. A formerly compliant population, except for some small protest cells, has become politically activated in response to blatant vote-rigging during last year’s presidential elections. The only way in which the long-time dictator, Lukashenko, has retained power after the fraudulent election, has been to unleash police brutality against peaceful protestors who had taken to the streets demanding fresh, independently monitored elections, the last thing Lukashenko wants and fears the most. In response to the ruthless and inhumane activity of the dictator’s security forces, the European Union last year imposed several sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes on more than eighty Belarusian officials. Financial and business restrictions on seven economic entities associated with Lukashenko’s regime were also imposed.
These earlier measures, however, did not deter the Belarusian authorities from pursuing hard-line tactics. Between May and December last year, over 33,000 people were detained and prosecuted, and 900 individuals (including 9 journalists) have faced criminal charges, numbers that continue to grow. Arrests, false imprisonments, and political firings have become commonplace.
What lessons other authoritarian leaders will draw from the Ryanair incident will depend on whether Lukashenko is allowed to get away with his activities. After the high-jack, the European Union quickly took action to ban Belarusian flights from its airspace and has agreed that further sanctions will be finalised by 21 June, when EU foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg. Sanctions on financial transactions and targeting the country’s oil, wood, and cement industry have been considered, but perhaps the most painful for Lukashenko would be sanctions on Belaruskali, a state-owned company that produces potash, a potassium-rich salt used in fertilizer. This would be particularly painful for the dictator as Belarus has an estimated 20 percent of the world’s reserves of potash, and exports of this are one of its major sources of foreign currency.
For years, the West has hoped to attract Belarus into the western democratic family, away from autocratic Russia, which is why it has been so reluctant to heavily punish Lukashenko. On his part, Lukashenko has cleverly played Russia against the West, blackmailing both to extract money. When Vladimir Putin pushed for a deeper union between the two countries two years ago so that he could preside over a new empire, a tiny version of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko resisted, taking the unlikely role of champion of Belarusian independence. But by stealing the election and then ordering mass arrests, mass beatings, and mass torture of those who objected, he has destroyed the last speck of legitimacy he had at home and alienated the foreign powers that had previously tolerated him. Now he has only one possible ally left, Vladimir Putin, who now appears to be about to achieve his aim. No wonder Vlad had such a big smile on his face when the two dictators, who both detest and eliminate any opposition, embraced in Sochi last week.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.