Conflict Alerts # 384, 26 May 2021
In the news
On 23 May, citing a security threat onboard, Belarus diverted a Ryanair flight to Minsk to detain Roman Protasevich, a journalist and vocal critique of President Lukashenko. On 24 May, a video clip of Protasevich was shown on Belarusian state television. The journalist was seen sitting at a table with folded hands and saying he was in satisfactory health and that his treatment in custody was "maximally correct and according to law." He added that he was giving evidence to investigators about organizing mass disturbances.
On 25 May, the European Union agreed on fresh sanctions against Belarus, promising to bar the country's airline Belavia from its airspace. "This is an attack on democracy," said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. "This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer."
Amid the outrage from Western Europe, Moscow responded in support of the Belarusian President. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the 'episode needs to be investigated — but that it couldn't be rushed.'
On 26 May, President Lukashenko, in an address said: "I acted lawfully to protect our people..Our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state...They have crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality."
Issues at large
First, the unfolding situation. While flying over the Belarusian airspace, pilots onboard Ryanair Flight 4978 had received a warning on potential security threat, and a MiG-29 was sent to escort the Boeing 737-800 to Minsk. The emergency landing took place minutes before the plane was meant to cross into Lithuanian airspace. While no security threat was found onboard upon searching the plane, passengers, and their luggage as the plane took off, Roman Protasevich was not on board. The Belarus Transport Ministry had later clarified the emergency turn saying it received an email from Hamas, claiming it had put a bomb on board the plane.
Second, Lukashenko's firm hold since 2020 protests. For the past 26 years, Lukashenko often referred to as Europe's last dictator has maintained a tight grip on power by retaining much from the country's Soviet past. His position has dwindled after the presidential election results in 2020 triggered a country-wide protest. Further, since September 2020, more than 34,000 people have been arrested and any domestic journalists who reported the protests are facing up to 12 years of jail term. Protasevich had been one such opposition activist, living in exile in Lithuania. In a country where the media remains muzzled, his Telegram channel Nexta brought to the fore the police violence against protesters.
Third, Europe's sanctions. The current sanctions by the EU add the most recent set of sanctions that were imposed after Lukashenko started armed arrests and crackdown on the protestors. Von der Leyen had put on hold a €3 billion EU investment and the economic package until Belarus "turns democratic." Lithuania has shut its airspace and the UK Foreign Secretary said Britain was suspending the operating permit of Belarus's national airline. The sanctions since last year had little impact, as Lukashenko with continued Russian support has been able to stifle the opposition movement and the protests have largely fizzled out.
Fourth, Russia's support. Moscow and Minsk have close political, economic, and military ties, and Lukashenko has relied on Russian support amid Western sanctions. For Belarus, Russia is an economic and political partner sustaining Lukashenko's leadership. For Russia, Belarus forms an economic and political influence in the region and is a 'convenient bulwark against what it sees as the European encroachment.'
First, the sanction will have little impact as it looks to punish the hijacking rather than attacking the regime. A senior advisor to Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, rightly said the EU's attention span was "very, very short."
Second, the sanctions could push Belarus closer to Russia but Putin and Lukashenko have been known to be uncomfortable allies with a fragile allegiance, born out of necessity. Lastly, the leadership's extent of insecurity in detaining an onboard exiled journalist risking an emergency landing of an international flight.