By William Tucker
Since the contested reelection of Belarus strongman President Alexander Lukashenko last September, the government in Minsk has done everything it can to tamp down on dissidence whether in the form of street protests or public commentary.
Lukashenko took matters to an unexpected level on May 23 when he ordered a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter to intercept a Ryanair civilian airliner in Belarusian airspace and forced it to land in Minsk ostensibly due to a bomb threat.
Once the airliner was on the ground, Roman Protasevich, a Belarus dissident, and his girlfriend were arrested and removed from the flight. According to Ryanair, no explosives were found. Later, the BBC reported that Belarusian state news agency BelTA said the Ryanair flight was intercepted on Lukashenko’s personal orders, further inflaming tensions with Belarus’ European neighbors.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, didn’t mince words, tweeting: “The outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences. Those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned. Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately. EUCO will discuss tomorrow action to take.”
The use of the words skyjacking or hijacking are not meant as hyperbole. Such incidents as this are rare, but it is difficult to apply any other terminology to this case, using a false claim of a bomb threat to intercept a civilian airliner for domestic political purposes.
If Protasevich was accused of violating a legitimate law, then Minsk could have used other mechanisms to secure his arrest and extradition. That Lukashenko saw fit to use a skyjacking as a form of rendition demonstrates the tenuous nature of the criminal claims.
European Union leaders hold a summit this week and discussions of further sanctions against Belarus are on the table, including preventing EU member states from allowing civilian airliners to utilize Belarusian airspace. EU leaders are also expected to call for an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) investigation into the matter as it may have been a violation of the Chicago Convention.
Drafted in 1944 by 54 nations, thelandmark agreement established the core principles permitting international transport by air, and led to the creation of the specialized agency which has overseen it ever since, the ICAO.
For its part, the U.S. will likely coordinate its response with its European counterparts. But overall, it is difficult to believe that these punitive measures will bring about any change in Lukashenko’s behavior.
Since the disputed election, Belarus has had less room to maneuver and fewer friends. Without the implicit or implied support from Russia, the probability of Lukashenko’s survival would have faced greater opposition from domestic dissidents. This means that any desire to modify future Belarusian behavior will require significant investment beyond sanctions because of the close relationship with Russia.
Sanctions are useful in some situations, yet their application over the past few decades has become a matter of course and their usefulness is debatable. Other methods have included military intervention or regime change also with dubious results.
The situation with Belarus must be met with a unified but innovative approach that can bring about the reliable change that is desperately needed.