Commercial airline flights passing over Eastern Europe and Russia have previously found themselves caught up in the power games between East and West, both during the Cold War and after. Notoriously, in 1983 the Soviet military shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 after it traversed into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 crew and passengers. In 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky by rockets fired from a field controlled by pro-Russian separatists during the early stages of the ongoing war in Ukraine and all 283 people on-board were killed. During the 1970s and 1980s, meanwhile, Soviet citizens occasionally hijacked international flights in attempts to reach the West. Yet something new took place on May 23rd when Ryanair Flight FR4978, travelling from Greece to Lithuania, was unexpectedly rerouted to land in Minsk whilst flying over Belarusian airspace.
The cause for landing was no mechanical failing. Instead, a national government, that of Belarus; led since 1994 by its authoritarian President Aleksandr Lukashenka; illegally but successfully authorised the hijacking of the commercial passenger flight and the detention of two of its 126 passengers, sending a fabricated bomb threat and a MiG-29 fighter to shadow the cockpit to intimidate the pilots. The target was Raman Pratasevich, 26, the former editor of the Belarusian opposition social media channel Nexta (pronounced nekh-ta meaning ‘somebody’), who was accompanied by his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23. Both were both arrested and imprisoned by the Belarusian KGB upon the grounding of their flight. Pratasevich has apparently since been tortured and he and Sapega were forced into making video-confessions to fraudulent charges of conspiring against the state. Pratasevich may face the death penalty.
This violation committed by the Belarusian authorities is a truly shocking move for a national government, even by the standards of the frequently brutal Lukashenka regime. The blatant disregard for international laws and norms exhibited by the decision to authorise the hijacking reflects the increasingly intense process of retrenchment taking place within the Belarusian state, as it attempts to re-stamp its authority on the country after experiencing massive anti-Lukashenka protests which erupted in 2020 following a rigged election. Many other key opposition figures have already been arrested or exiled, notably the main independent candidate in the rigged poll, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the all-female opposition troika completed by Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova.
As the dust settles following the hijacking, international observers’ eyes have turned to the West to see how it will respond. Since Belarus gained independence in 1991, the US and EU have long attempted to draw the small-state of 10 million people away from Russia, which has significant economic, political, and military ties with Minsk and essentially props up Lukashenka’s government. Lukashenka, however, has sought to strike a balancing act between East and West, and insisted only he can preserve Belarus’ autonomy, a claim used as one of his main campaign messages in Belarus’ unfree elections. The West now, however, must be seen to act towards forcing change in Belarus. The question remains as to whether sanctions or promises of financial aid provide the best avenue to producing more democratic outcomes in Belarus.
Some initial steps have already been taken. The UK and EU have banned commercial airliners from taking flight paths that traverse Belarusian airspace, with the bloc also enacting asset freezes on leading Belarusian officials. On the other hand, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has offered £2.6 billion in financial aid should Belarus take major steps towards democratic reform, emulating a classic ‘carrot and stick’ approach to international relations. Washington, meanwhile, announced that it would work with Brussels to design a more comprehensive set of sanctions.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, however, has said Western responses must go much further than they have before, asking the EU to be ‘braver’. Acting from Lithuania, she will try to use her status as leader of the Belarusian opposition-in-exile to meet with world leaders and attempt to persuade them that decisive action is required. The opposition hope for targeted economic sanctions, including a boycott on Belarusian petrochemicals, as well as potash, which are the main stays of national export products. The leader of the Belarusian opposition hopes to travel to Washington once Covid-related restrictions are relaxed.
Meanwhile, there are more specific, but no less important questions facing Western governments. In particular, the UK, now outside the EU, is under pressure to end the flow of dirty Belarusian money which passes through the City of London, as Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid has called for. British firms must also act with regard to their ties to the Belarusian government.
The West’s response has to be comprehensive and decisive, lest Lukashenka be allowed to continue his brutal reign and stifle all dissent. Western governments must also consider how to combat the influence of Russia, with President Vladimir Putin recently ‘hailing’ closer ties between his country and Belarus. All eyes will thus be on whether the G7 leaders make good on their promises ‘to support civil society, independent media, and human rights in Belarus’, made at the recent Cornwall Summit. Meanwhile, the EU seems close to finalising its sanctions package, which initially meets many of the opposition’s hopes, though uncertainty still remains as to what the bloc will approve and enact. At stake is the liberty of thousands of political prisoners and the futures of millions of Belarusians.