Just over a year ago, a poll showed that Belarus was Europe’s least well-known nation, apart from tiny San Marino. Few people outside of the former Eastern Bloc would have been able to point to the country on a map, and those who could, knew it only as the continent’s ‘last dictatorship.’
Now though, the former Soviet Republic has an altogether new claim to fame – as Europe’s capital of sky piracy. On Sunday, Ryanair Flight 4978, flying from Greece to Lithuania, was ordered to land on a runway in the capital, Minsk, over claims that Palestinian militant group Hamas may have planted a bomb on board.
While the crew were somewhat bewildered by the instruction, given they were almost out of the country’s airspace and closer to their destination than to the alternative airport, they complied – unsurprisingly, given a Belarusian fighter jet had been scrambled to accompany the passenger plane.
The motivation behind the extraordinary security scare soon became clearer, when one passenger, Roman Protasevich, the editor of an opposition-leaning news site banned by Belarusian authorities, was hauled off the grounded flight and detained on the tarmac. Along with his girlfriend, a Russian national, he is now being held by the country’s KGB security agency while the flight, with no bomb found on board, carried on to Vilnius.
The incident has caused a furore in the EU, given the plane was intercepted while flying between two member states. One official compared the action to the kind of commandeering more frequently carried out by Somali pirates, while Ryanair’s Chief Executive termed it “state sponsored piracy.”
But while the egregious breach of almost every rule governing international relations has sparked uproar, it turns out there is little that anyone can really do about it. Since Belarus’ veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in the country’s presidential elections last year, widely believed to have been rigged, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand fresh elections. They have been met with a heavy-handed crackdown by authorities, with tear gas, beatings, mass detentions, and arbitrary arrests becoming a part of everyday life. Much of that protest movement has largely now fizzled out, with Lukashenko refusing to budge and the demonstrators standing to lose a lot more than they have so far gained.
The grounding of Flight 4978 might have made headlines in the West, but the fomenting political crisis that has engulfed Belarusian society and led to a mass exodus of young people from the country went largely unnoticed. While the EU contemplates its response to the sharp escalation, it will find its options for retaliation are as limited as they were when Brussels tried to support the protestors. Hard-hitting sanctions might hurt Lukashenko’s inner circle, but they’re likely to hurt ordinary Belarusians far more, as well as the economies of neighboring Poland and the Baltic nations.
On Wednesday afternoon, a flight heading from Minsk to Barcelona, operated by the country’s flag carrier Belavia, was forced into a holding pattern over southern Belarus. Reports indicate it was denied access to EU airspace and was eventually turned around while running out of fuel. For days, there had been suggestions that the EU could move to ban the airline from its skies. However, any such move would likely see Lukashenko issue a reciprocal ban on Western operators, vastly reducing Belarusian’s prospects of being able to get out of the country via airports.
Worryingly, the West’s own record on this issue is far from stellar. In 2016, a Belavia flight was grounded by Ukraine, being forced to return to the runway in Kiev just 20 minutes after takeoff in order to arrest a reporter with a record of criticizing the government. No outrage was registered from European capitals. Likewise, a presidential jet carrying Bolivian leader Evo Morales was banned from flying through several Western nations on its return from Moscow in 2013. Without sufficient fuel, it landed in Austria, where it was searched on dodgy intelligence that US whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board. The legality was questionable, and no apologies were received.
The apparent double standard being applied weakens the case that this is an unprecedented crisis, and bolster’s Lukashenko’s ability to shrug off violating what should be universally international norms.
Likewise, later on Wednesday, Belarus’ security officers released a series of photos claiming to show Protasevich had fought in the Donbass war alongside a Ukrainian neo-Nazi led outfit, the Azov Battalion. The purported disclosures come after days of speculation that the news editor had links to far-right groups. While, alone, these allegations are irrelevant to the manner of his detention, it forces the West to once again hail someone with a dubious record as being a hero for democracy. Public consciousness about Eastern Europe, unfortunately, can only comprehend heroes and villains.
As a result, with the West powerless to change the situation on the ground and struggling for legitimacy in the region, the short-term outlook for its efforts to support both Protasevich, and the opposition movement, is dim. There are no winners from a heavy-handed sanctions campaign, and any action taken should be first and foremost be about the people living under Lukashenko’s government. To storm in now on the back of international outrage would be a mistake, especially when most politicians would likely still struggle to find the troubled country on a map.