On Sunday, May 23, 2021, Ryanair Flight 4978 was traveling from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania when it made a sudden change of course over Belarus, approximately 10 km from the Lithuanian border. According to an unverified transcript from the Belarusian Ministry of Transport, air traffic controllers told the pilot at 09:30 GMT that there was a bomb on board that could be activated over Vilnius. Even though the plane was closer to Vilnius than Minsk (Belarusian capital), the pilot was told to divert the flight to the latter. A Belarusian Air Force MiG-29 jet was dispatched to escort the plane, which landed at 10:16 GMT (BBC, 2021).
Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko has claimed that the flight’s diversion was due to a bomb threat via email from Switzerland. However, the latter’s government officials said they have no idea about it and found no solid evidence based on Lukashenko’s claims. Whether the security warning was a lie by Belarusian authorities is now at the heart of an incident that has triggered strong Western condemnation as a “state-sponsored hijacking” and raised serious concerns about aviation safety.
One of the passengers on board was Roman Protasevich, one of the journalists and political activists campaigning against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule in exile. He founded Nexta, a Telegram channel that aided in the mobilization of anti-Lukashenko protests, and was charged with organizing violations of public order (Lister, 2021).
Alexander Lukashenko’s Authoritarian Rule in Belarus
After winning the first Belarusian presidential election as a dark candidate on a platform of anti-corruption in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko maintained a Soviet-style command economy, which brought about economic stability and boosted his popularity as Belarusian people didn’t suffer the impact of oligarchy-producing “shock therapy” reforms that happened in Russia and Ukraine (Heintz, 2021). Belarus gained the moniker “Europe’s last dictatorship” as a result of parliament’s dissolution in 1996 and the EU and the United States regularly accuse it of grave violations of civil and political freedoms (Mulvey, 2001).
During last year’s presidential election, Lukashenko won his sixth term in office after gaining 80% of the vote. However, supporters of his rival, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, accused him of election rigging and rejected the results. Lukashenko himself rejected demands for resignation, leading to large-scale demonstrations across the country. A violent crackdown soon followed suit and Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania. More than 34,000 civilians have been arrested and several of them have been killed by security forces (McDermott, 2021).
Roman Protasevich’s Arrest
The 26-year-old Roman Protasevich co-founded Nexta (pronounced “Niekhta”, meaning “somebody” in Belarusian), a Poland-based Telegram channel that air footages of Belarusian street demonstrations and police brutality. With almost two million subscribers, Nexta played a key role in managing anti-government demonstrators (BBC, 2021).
Protasevich left Belarus for Poland in late 2019 and applied for the latter's citizenship in January 2020. He then moved to Lithuania, where Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashennko’s rival widely regarded as the 2020 Belarusian presidential election’s real winner, lived in exile (Aljazeera, 2021).
In November 2020, the Belarusian government accused Protasevich of terrorism and Nexta of extremism. The former offense is punishable by the death penalty in Belarus (Thuburn, 2021). The Belarusian government also demanded the blocking of Nexta.
Belarusian police arrested Protasevich on May 23, 2021, after the Ryanair 4978 flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania was diverted to Belarus. Protasevich was previously in Greece to attend an economic conference. President Alexander Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 to escort the plane to Minsk airport following allegations of a bomb threat made by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group based in the Gaza Strip. However, his claim is not proven true (ITV, 2021). Since then, Protasevich has often been paraded on Belarusian TV and shown confessing to participating in subversive activities in videos which, according to the opposition, were filmed under duress.
EU and the United States’ Sanctions in Response to the Ryanair 4978’s Diversion
As a result of the Ryanair 4978’s diversion, the European Union imposed economic sanctions on Belarus which targets the latter’s export industries and access to finance. The measures include banning EU businesses from transactions with Belarusian counterparts in several sectors, i.e. banking, oil, and potash (Belarus' main export). Access to EU capital markets is restricted with a ban on Belarusian securities’ trade with maturities of more than 90 days. Loans by the European Investment Bank (EIB) to Belarus will be postponed. The 27-member economic bloc’s airlines are banned from going through Belarusian airspace and the latter’s carriers are expelled from the former’s airspace (Emmott, 2021).
At the same time, the U.S.’s Joe Biden administration announced a range of sanctions that target certain Belarusian individuals and entities. The sanctions include visa restrictions imposed by the U.S. State Department on 46 Belarusian officials for their role in “disrupting democratic institutions in Belarus” (Sheehey, 2021). The U.S. itself has maintained comprehensive sanctions on Belarus since 2006, following a presidential election that was deemed contrary to free and fair principles, by restricting international travel and freezing the assets of Alexander Lukashenko and his regime's 16 high-ranking officials.
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Author: Raynor Argaditya (Department of International Relations, UPN Veteran Jakarta)