Outrage mounts at Belarus’s use of air piracy in aid of repression

WESTERN STATESMEN have been competing with each other to express their horror and fury at what was tantamount to an act of piracy perpetrated by Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, on May 23rd. Antony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, said America “strongly condemns” the “shocking act”, in which Mr Lukashenko forced a Ryanair passenger plane to make an unscheduled stop in his capital in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, the co-founder and former editor of an internet channel, NEXTA. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, called it an “unprecedented act of state terrorism”. NATO branded the incident “serious and dangerous”. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted: “The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.”


But translating that outrage into meaningful action is proving harder. EU leaders met in Brussels on the evening of May 24th for an already-arranged summit, at which Belarus was hastily added to the agenda. After a discussion over dinner, the leaders issued a brief statement which did about the minimum. They demanded the release of Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend, who was arrested with him. They called on all EU-based air carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace (an obvious precaution, which will do nothing to inconvenience Mr Lukashenko), and they agreed to close EU airports to Belarusian airlines, which will at least have some effect. Britain, no longer an EU member, had earlier in the day done exactly the same thing.


The leaders also authorised officials to draw up further economic sanctions in addition to those imposed following Mr Lukashenko’s crackdown last summer. But they did not give any detail of what these might be, or when they might appear. In the past, reaching agreement on such measures has been a slow and tortuous process; finding consensus among 27 members generally is.


Belarus, for its part, has its own version of events, which it claims justifies its actions. But Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor has called it “completely implausible”. That Mr Protasevich has already been shown in a video, saying he was being well treated, and confessing to “plotting riots”, will have done little to convince the regime’s critics.


Citing what it said was evidence that there were explosives on board, the authorities forced the aircraft to land in Minsk as it passed through Belarusian airspace on its way to neighbouring Lithuania from Greece, sending a MiG fighter plane to escort the Ryanair jet down. The state news agency later reported that no explosives had been found. And it seems the plane had almost reached the Lithuanian border when it was turned around, and then had a much longer journey to Minsk than it would have had to Vilnius—making a mockery of the claim that the action was intended to deal with a bomb threat. It seems certain that the incident was invented purely as a way of arresting the journalist.


Mr Protasevich, who is 26, and Sofia Sapega, his Russian girlfriend, have meanwhile been propelled to international fame, with world leaders calling for their release. NEXTA, which Mr Protasevich ran from Warsaw, has long been a thorn in the president’s side. Initially on YouTube and subsequently on Telegram, an encrypted mobile-phone app, the site has since 2015 been a vehicle for criticism and mockery of the autocrat.


But it was only last summer that its popularity exploded. In August Mr Lukashenko was announced as the winner of an election in which he had barred several popular candidates from running. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of the blocked candidates, ran instead of her husband, and most observers believe that she actually won the election by a healthy margin. However, the official results gave Mr Lukashenko 80% of the vote in what was his sixth consecutive election victory. Ms Tikhanovskaya was subsequently deported to Lithuania, and now lives in Vilnius.


After huge protests broke out in Minsk and other cities, the authorities launched a campaign of beatings and arrests which has continued to this day—although the number of people taking to the streets has since dwindled as a result of intimidation. NEXTA and Telegram played a crucial role in organising the protests and disseminating videos of police brutality. At one point NEXTA’s subscriber base was said to cover a fifth of the entire population of Belarus. Mr Protasevich was placed on a terrorist watchlist by Mr Lukashenko’s security forces, but must have considered himself safe in exile. As an alleged terrorist he potentially now faces the death penalty in Belarus.


Belarus is already subject to EU sanctions for the brutality with which it has treated protesters; these take the form of asset freezes and travel bans on a list of 88 named people, including Mr Lukashenko himself, and a number of state-owned entities. America has a similar, but shorter list. These lists are likely to now be expanded, but neither America nor the EU has gone into details.


For all the fury, designing tougher sanctions that will have a real effect will be difficult. Moreover, Western countries may be reluctant to push Belarus into an even tighter embrace with Russia, where Vladimir Putin continues to support his fellow autocrat. And Russia can easily render Western economic sanctions ineffective, supplying Belarus with cash and commodities, and handling its meagre exports. Even before resorting to state terrorism, Belarus was already a pariah, without much to lose.


Perhaps the most depressing thing about the weak EU response is that Mr Putin may draw from it the conclusion that he could get away with a similar action. It is easy enough for EU planes to avoid Belarusian airspace. Avoiding Russia would be an awful lot harder.


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