Is The Pratasevich Case A Game Changer For Belarus?
By Tony Wesolowsky, RFE/RL's Belarus Service May 24, 2021
Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been the authoritarian leader of Belarus for decades, is no stranger to international censure.
The 66-year-old former collective farm manager faces isolation and sanctions because of his government's brutal, and sometimes deadly, crackdown on pro-democracy opponents after an election last August that was widely believed to be fraudulent extended his rule for another five years.
More than 33,000 people have been detained, thousands beaten or tortured, and journalists targeted in the government's crackdown that appears to have intensified in recent months even as large-scale demonstrations have vanished amid growing fear and fatigue. Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, seen by many as the rightful winner of the election, left for Lithuania after the vote amid threats to herself and her family.
On May 23, Lukashenka appeared to up the stakes further, taking his hunt for opponents to unprecedented heights -- literally -- as his government scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a civilian aircraft to land in Minsk. Authorities then detained Raman Pratasevich, co-founder and a former editor of the Nexta channel.
Much of the international community reacted with shock and fury to the news of the forced landing of the Ryanair plane on a scheduled flight from Athens to Vilnius.
Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU's executive European Commission, said Pratasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for "the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned," adding EU leaders meeting in Brussels on May 24 would discuss what action to take.
As European officials threatened new sanctions against Belarus, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the forced landing and arrest a "shocking act," demanded Pratasevich's immediate release, and said President Joe Biden's administration was "coordinating with our partners on next steps."
Given an EU-based airline was involved, Lukashenka may have underestimated the West's possible reaction, explained Valer Karbalevich, a Belarusian political analyst based in Minsk.
"Before now, the regime has operated on its territory. For politicians in the West, it was a humanitarian question, a question of human rights. Now, after the incident with the airplane, it becomes a question of international security," Karbalevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
"This is a huge scandal. Western politicians view the situation unambiguously that a civilian plane was forced to land in Minsk with the use of military force," Karbalevich added.
Lukashenka appears to have put a "higher priority on suppressing dissent within his own country than on a working relationship" with the West, explained Keir Giles, a consulting fellow at London's Chatham House with a focus on security issues in the former Soviet area.
"This means he may feel domestic political opposition is a bigger threat to control of the country than it appeared -- or that Belarus sees no downside in returning to the status of a pariah, that it sees no value or hope in being at peace with the West," Giles explained to RFE/RL in emailed comments.
For Lukashenka, the opportunity to nab Pratasevich was too tempting to resist, offered Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian analyst based in Sweden.
Until last November, the 26-year-old journalist worked for the Polish-based online Nexta news service, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenka last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to cover the events.
Pratasevich who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organizing mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.
"For Lukashenka, according to his line of reasoning, Telegram channels are to blame for 'organizing revolution.' Finding a way to arrest the editor of one of those channels proved a temptation Lukashenka couldn't resist," Rudnik told RFE/RL in emailed comments.
According to pro-government media in Belarus, Lukashenka himself ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to be scrambled to intercept the Ryanair jet because of the purported bomb scare. No bomb was found on the plane.
Data from Flightradar24.com showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the ground, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.
"The Belarusian authorities are expanding their operation beyond the borders of the country. 'Coup plotters' were detained in Moscow; a plane belonging to an Irish company is forced to land in Minsk," said Karbalevich, referring to the April arrests in Moscow of Yuras Zyankovich, a Belarusian-born lawyer who also holds U.S. citizenship, and Alyaksandr Fyaduta, who served as Lukashenka's spokesman in the 1990s.
The arrests were part of a bizarre claim that an assassination attempt was being prepared against Lukashenka and his two sons, as well as a military coup, to be carried out by a "group of foreign security services, probably the CIA and the FBI" and approved "by the top political leadership" in the United States. Washington quickly denied what it called "absurd" allegations.
The European Union has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarus, imposing asset freezes and visa bans on 88 individuals and seven entities, including Lukashenka himself. And even before the Ryanair incident, the bloc had been working on a fourth round targeting more senior officials.
Washington's response has largely mirrored that of Brussels. In its latest action on April 19, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it was revoking a license that had allowed transactions with nine sanctioned state-owned companies in Belarus since 2015, including the oil company Belneftekhim, which accounts for 30 percent of Belarus's industrial output.
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez issued a statement with the heads of seven European parliamentary foreign affairs panels denouncing the forced landing as "an act of piracy."
They called for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, including to and from the country, and for NATO and EU states to impose sanctions and suspend Belarus's "ability to use Interpol."
An EU declaration, signed by all 27 members, noted that "the EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible."
RFE/RL European correspondent Rikard Jozwiak reported there is also talk of banning Belavia, the state-owned Belarusian national airline, from landing at EU airports and barring all flights of EU airlines from entering Belarusian airspace.
Air Baltic has already announced it is suspending flights over Belarusian airspace over safety concerns, meaning a loss of overflight fees for the cash-strapped Lukashenka government.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), however, only said it had raised "awareness of the situation" with European national aviation authorities.
"The national authorities were recommended to pass this information on to their airlines for inclusion in each airline's own risk assessment process," the EASA said in a statement shared with RFE/RL.
Failure by the West to act, Giles cautioned, could send a worrying signal to other authoritarian regimes.
"Lukashenka may be counting on the EU's reliable pattern of statements of concern not being followed up with meaningful action," Giles said. "This would be disastrous, as it would set a precedent for authoritarian regimes around the world to act against airliners overflying their territory. Air travel would become immeasurably more hazardous, including on the hundreds of routes that cross Russia and China on their way from Europe and North America to Asia."
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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