Belarussian State Hijacking And Sanctions

On 24 May, a Ryanair plane heading to Vilnius, Lithuania, was forced to change course and land in Minsk, Belarus. The cabin personnel was informed that there was a potential security risk on board the plane, and was then escorted by two Belarusian fighter planes to Minsk. The order reportedly came from the Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko. While the plane was grounded in Minsk, five people were taken off the plane. One of them was Raman Protasevich, a prominent opposition activist from Belarus. Protasevich runs a blog and other social media outlets and worked as a freelance journalist. In 2019, he moved to Poland and became the editor-in-chief for the opposition channel “Nexta.” Protasevich is now being detained and risk being sentence to 15 years of prison.

The International Civil Aviation Organization has strongly condemned the forced landing in Minsk and will launch a fact-finding mission to see if international law was broken. Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nauseda calls the events a “state-sponsored act of terrorism.” The events have also sparked a global protest that hundreds of people have participated in.

Many European countries have now imposed a flight ban over Belarusian airspace. Several countries have responded by imposed sanctions against Belarus, and the E.U. is considering sanctions. Russia, however, has stated that they will defend and help Belarus if the E.U. sanctions are put in place. Belarus has in turn responded by imposing a partial trade ban on Ukrainian goods. While economic sanction sends an important signal, they are rarely effective on their own. They also tend to affect the general population to a larger degree than the elite. The global credit rating company S&P has pointed about that sanctions may lead to Belarus becoming more dependent on Russia. While the world needs to show that this event is unacceptable, it is crucial to keep diplomatic channels open and not cut ties between the E.U. and Belarus. A video of a detained and bruised Protasevich has been released, and his family is pleading to international organizations, like the Red Cross, to be allowed access to Protasevich. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a Belarusian opposition leader, believes that Protasevich is being beaten and tortured. Incentives need to be given so that Belarus allows representatives of the Red Cross access to all five who are being detained after the forced landing.

The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has now been in power for 27 years. Lukashenko has been nicknamed ‘Europe’s last dictator.’ The opposition has accused Lukashenko of rigging last year’s election, which had him winning by a landslide. This led to large-scale protests in the country. Lukashenko reportedly answered calls for him to resign by saying, “until you kill me, there will be no other elections.” The channel Nexta, which Protasevich work for, was one of the important ones during the protests. Lukashenko answered by cracking down on protesters and activists. Opposition leaders have been imprisoned or exiled. After the protests, the U.N.’s Human Rights Experts reported that they had received over 450 reports of torture and abuse. They also reported that they were worried about the cases of forced disappearing. The E.U. already has sanctions in place toward Belarus after last year’s violence against protesters, but is considering additional ones.

The forced landing of the Ryanair plane is an unprecedented event that has evoked reactions globally. Several countries have already answered with flight-bans and sanctions. The E.U. is expected to announce the sanctions against Belarus in early June. While sanctions send an important signal, they need to be followed up with diplomatic efforts to solve the current crisis concerning both international aviation law and the five people being detained in Belarus.