In response to threats from the European Union (EU) to impose economic sanctions upon Minsk, Russia has committed itself to supporting Belarus. The announcement from the EU accompanies a series of similar statements from other countries, such as the United States and Ukraine, following the forced landing of Ryanair Flight 4978 and the subsequent arrest of a Minsk-based opposition blogger on 23 May. As part of its sanctioning efforts, the EU and other states have instructed their airlines not to fly over Belarus or land at its airports, with similar restrictions on incoming Belarusian flights. According to a statement given by the EU Council, all “EU member states will therefore be required to deny permission to land in, take off from or overfly their territories to any aircraft operated by Belarusian air carriers.”
In a statement shared by Belarusian air traffic controllers, the plane was landed in order to address “a potential security threat,” specifically a bomb risk, leading Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to give an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land.” However, upon its grounding, reporter Mr. Roman Protasevich was immediately arrested and taken into custody, where he is currently being detained. After further investigation, Belarusian law enforcement authorities found no evidence of a threat aboard the plane. The incident prompted the International Civil Aviation Organization to express its concern regarding the ethics of the landing and its implications for the international community. The Lithuanian government has shared similar sentiments, calling the landing “state terrorism.”
In contrast, Russian authorities have taken the opposite stance, refusing to approve European flights that were deliberately avoiding Belarus in protest of the international response. While Belarus holds unstable relationships with the majority of European nations as well as being an outlier in its lack of membership of the EU, it is a key ally of Russia, whose government supported the re-election of President Lukashenko in August 2020. Remaining consistent with his position, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed little interest in Protasevich’s condition. Yet, considering Russia’s strained relationship with many western countries, experts speculate such support is likely only to maintain Belarusian allyship.
Protasevich was targeted due to his involvement and leadership in coordinating protest movements following the August 2020 election. As the co-founder of an opposition Telegram channel called NEXTA, Protasevich was found responsible by Belarusian officials for “organizing protests that violate social order.” While the protests were peaceful, Belarusian police forces responded “with tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and batons,” as well as restrictions on “internet access and mobile phone service,” according to the New York Times.
Belarusian officials, specifically President Lukashenko, have demonstrated a complete overstep of their authority, and the landing and arrest mark a notable suppression of civic dissent. The plane landing calls into question the limits, or lack thereof, of executive power at the state level, and it poses a violation of the safety of international air travel practices. Additionally, the violent actions and arrests taken by Belarusian law enforcement that have been intended to quell civil unrest following the recent election are severe threats to political participation, free speech, and human rights and safety within the government.
However, external sanctions are likely not an effective solution. Rather, economic sanctions more often cause direct harm to the citizens of the governments they target instead of influencing the behavior of states themselves. By imposing sanctions on Belarus, the EU is simply increasing economic strain and unemployment for the working class, as well as limiting available resources, particularly for the most vulnerable populations. Furthermore, air travel sanctions could threaten the physical safety and well-being of Belarusian citizens needing to travel to neighboring states.
The grounding, seen by many states as a form of state hijacking, highlights a pattern of President Lukashenko’s speculated abuse of power. Based on events reported in the New York Times, economic and social failures regarding the coronavirus pandemic as well as an abnormally high (80%) majority election vote suggest recent elections, such as the one in August 2020, have been largely manipulated in his favour. Additionally, the increased practice of voter suppression, limits on fair election practices and polls, and restraints on the opposition indicate corrupt power institutions in the Belarusian government. According to former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, such actions convey Belarus’ prevailing characteristics of a “true dictatorship” and authoritarian regime despite its official constitutional status as a democratic state.
As more states condemn these recent actions, Belarus continues to isolate itself from the rest of Europe and other parts of the world. With additional sanctions yet to be fully imposed, the country will likely experience further economic effects in the near future. To limit the expected backlash, law enforcement authorities will likely implement greater restrictions on their people, putting the security of the Belarusian opposition at greater risk.
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