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Belarus’ skyjacking of Ryanair flight to arrest dissident journalist rattles EU

Lukashenko defiant, airlines urged to avoid Belarus air space

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ATHENS – An incident in which a Belarusian warplane intercepted a flight between EU-members Greece and Lithuania and forced it down in Minsk on May 23, where a dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested might have set a dangerous precedent for international aviation.

“So far, air traffic regulations were the area where international cooperation worked largely reliably and not disturbed by unpredictable political needs,” GLOBSEC Policy Institute Director Alena Kudzko told New Europe on May 26, adding that this incident might change the trust that the air space is safe.

Belarus’ long-serving authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly personally ordered the MiG-29 fighter to intercept the Ryanair plane and force it back to the airport in Minsk, Belarus’ capital, after a bomb threat was falsely reported by alleged Belarusian KGB agents on board the plane; a move that has been denounced by the West as “state piracy”.

“If it worked for Lukashenko, why wouldn’t any government ground flights at will to go after wanted passengers?” Kudzko asked. “This incident also directly endangers the safety of all passengers on board. Airlines and individual travelers might want to think twice about the routes they are to take,” she added.

According to Kudzko, who was born and grew up in Belarus, the harsh international criticism and reaction are being done with the hope that Lukashenko’s actions don’t set a precedent as it would usher in a state of lawlessness in the airspace. Kudzko noted, however, that sanctions, including making Belarus effectively a no-fly zone and banning the Belarusian national flag carrier Belavia from flying to European countries, are messages that are intended for not only Lukashenko.

“This is also a message to any other government, any other regime, or nongovernmental actor that this behavior is not going to be tolerated. Do not even think about it,” she said.

Asked if the response from the EU and the international community was enough, Kudzko said the European Union and other countries are reacting both swiftly and consequentially. “It is an important and clear sign that this behavior – by anyone, not just Lukashenko – is not acceptable,” she said.

It remains to be seen what impact the sanctions will have on Belarus and the Lukashenko regime. “The EU has done an impressive job mobilizing (itself) within 24 hours. This quick reaction changes the dynamics of the situation and clearly indicates not only the position of the EU, but also sets a path to action that goes beyond strong verbal statements. Of course, the sanctions have not entered into force yet – it was a political agreement. The details still need to be worked out,” said Kudzko.

She stressed that any sanctions should be thought about only as part of the strategy towards a particular country or a particular problem. “Sanctions alone, especially not particularly strong ones, as has been the case with Belarus up until now, are rarely sufficient to change a regime. As part of the broader package, they do play an important role in defunding the regime, undermining its economic and political sustainability, and narrowing the scope of the authorities’ ability to maneuver. Also, to have a truly painful effect, sanctions need time,” Kudzko said, explaining that with each passing month and year, the cumulative effect of the various embargoes become stronger.

“When I am talking about a broader package, it is important to remember that there are other policies in place, those that were introduced by the EU and other Western countries, that also play an important role and that need to be further strengthened,” Kudzko said. “Here, what I specifically mean, is support for the victims of repressions, independent media, visa-free travel for Belarusians, an economic package for post-Lukashenko Belarus to support the reform process,” she added.

Enquiring minds want to know

Pratasevich’s arrest after the airplane was diverted to Belarus appears to have been carried out with the help of secret Belarusian agents who were operating inside Greece’s borders. According to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, while still at Athens International Airport, Pratasevich is said to have informed colleagues via the Telegram messaging application that he was approached by an unknown Russian-speaking man who took a snap of him. Reportedly the agents also boarded the same flight as Pratasevich and got off in Minsk after the plane was diverted.

Analysts across Europe, as well as in Washington, have been left wondering if this incident highlighted any weaknesses in the Greek or Schengen visa issuance system, as it has become clear Belarusian KGB intelligence operatives somehow entered the Schengen Zone and boarded the flight in Athens.

Following fraudulent elections last August that handed Lukashenko a sixth term in office, the Belarusian leader and former Soviet collective farm boss, who has been in power since 1994, faced unprecedented waves of protests calling for his ouster. Backed by Russia and the loyalty of his own security services, Lukashenko has managed to successfully and violently crackdown on the protesters.

“It remains unclear what role Russia has played in the incident,” Kudzko told New Europe. “So far, we do not have many details. Russia has also had a rather reserved reaction to the incident. While supporting the line that Lukashenko acted within the law and followed proper rules to respond to a security alert, the Kremlin seems not to be willing to engage too much. There is a bit of a ‘wait-and-see’ tactic that gives the Kremlin time to calibrate its reaction based on the developments inside Belarus, but it will also take into consideration the international reaction,” the GLOBSEC Policy Institute Director said.

“But, in general, indeed, (Russian President) Vladimir Putin is the main, if not only, remaining supporter of Lukashenko. He provides financial, political and other types of help (to Lukashenko). Putin knows this very well. He will, and is already playing, the role of a kingmaker. This is also why the argument that sanctions push Lukashenko closer to Russia do merit serious concern,” Kudzko said.

Asked if the incident would further deteriorate relations between Brussels and Moscow, she said EU-Russia relations have been sour and have become worse in recent months. The situation in Belarus is a contributing factor to the deterioration of the relations, but it is not the only one. So far, I don’t see a clear strategy proposed by either the EU or Russia that would improve the state of relations between Brussels and Moscow. At least on the EU side, Kudzko said, there is an understanding that this state of relations is neither stable nor desirable, and there is a realization that there should be a strategy that is broader than sanctions. How exactly it will or could look like has not been well elaborated at this point.”

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