European Union leaders agreed on May 24 to impose sanctions on Belarus, including banning Belarusian airlines from using the airspace or airports of the E.U.’s 27 member nations, in response to the forced landing of a passenger jet and the subsequent arrest of opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich. Meeting in Brussels just a day after the hijacking of the Ryanair jetliner flying from Greece to Lithuania, E.U. leaders also imposed sanctions on individual Belarusian leaders, urged the International Civilian Aviation Organization to open a full investigation, and demanded the immediate release of both Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was also removed from the flight.
“This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behavior needs a strong answer,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the executive European Commission. She added that a proposed €3 billion E.U. economic investment package will remain in limbo until the Belarusian government under President Alexander Lukashenko “turns democratic.” E.U. Council chief Charles Michel, who presided over the meeting, said the organization “won’t tolerate that one can try to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians.” United States leaders also showed their opposition to the imprisonment, with President Joe Biden echoing calls for Pratasevich’s release and multiple government officials signing a joint statement calling on Biden to bar U.S. airlines from entering Belarusian airspace.
Although any sanctions from the E.U. and broader international community are welcome, the focus on sanctions solely related to air travel seems overly simplistic, with one exception being the threat to hold back broad economic investment. However, colleagues of Pratasevich told the BBC they feared for his life, and, in a statement to the Belarusian National Assembly on Wednesday, President Lukashenko maintained his authority to divert the plane and called it a necessary measure to protect his country. This dichotomy between the power of a regional institution such as the E.U. and a sovereign nation is a stark reminder of the precarity of human rights under authoritarian regimes within the current state-based international order. Short of military action, which would further endanger innocent victims of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus, it seems there is little for the E.U. to do, especially if Lukashenko sees this standoff with the international community as a referendum on his power. While prolonged, harsh economic sanctions could make Lukashenko change his mind, the vast majority of damage would be made towards civilians who may already oppose the regime.
Pratasevich was last seen in a hostage-style video that aired on state television early this past week, where he said he was in good health and called his arrest and treatment in custody “maximally correct and according to the law,” although those close to Pratasevich and the broader international community immediately dismissed the video as having been made under duress. Pratasevich is a renowned journalist who helped organize massive pro-democracy protests against Lukashenko as an editor at NEXTA, an independent media organization based in Poland featuring dissident Belarusian journalists, which reaches Belarus through the social media app Telegram. The Lukashenko regime, which has been in power since 1994, has a broad record of suppressing free speech and free elections. In response to the situation, Stepan Putilo, the founder of NEXTA and a close friend of Pratasevich said, “If the regime cares enough to bring down Roman’s plane, then we are doing something right, and we will carry on fighting.”
If the broader goal of E.U. interventions and sanctions in Belarus is the return of free and fair elections to the country, helping secure the release of Pratasevich is an important bellwether, as the journalist symbolizes an alternative to the autocratic rule of Lukashenko where freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech help comprise a democratic self-governance. For that same reason, Lukashenko may choose to defy even the harshest of sanctions, although a state-sanctioned murder of Pratasevich could propel him into martyrdom and spark the largest protest movement ever under the Lukashenko regime. Moving forward, positive signs for Pratasevich include an international community moving in lockstep to condemn this crackdown on dissidents, with the important exception of Lukashenko’s close ally Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, if Belarus is able to rebuke international pressure, it may signal to other authoritarians around the globe that silencing dissent has vastly more upside than downside.