Belarus has provoked condemnation and outrage in the West after it reportedly forced a commercial flight with a political activist to land in the country and immediately arrested the opposition.
The Eastern European country, which has close ties with Russia, appears to have forced a Ryanair plane traveling from Greece to Lithuania to land in its capital, Minsk, in order to arrest the Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich aboard.
Former editor-in-chief of the Nexta telegram channel, Roman Protasevich, who was arrested in Minsk on board a Ryanair plane that made an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital.
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Belarus said on Monday that its air traffic controllers could not “force” the Ryanair plane to land and instead gave “recommendations” to the plane’s crew, Reuters reported, citing Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
Belarusian state news agency BelTA reported that on orders from President Alexander Lukashenko, authorities had messed up a MiG-29 fighter plane to divert the flight as it approached the Lithuanian border.
Ryanair issued a statement confirming that the crew on flight FR4978 had been informed by Belarusian air traffic control about a potential security threat on board. The plane landed and security checks were carried out, but “nothing unusual was found”.
CNBC contacted the Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday for comment but has yet to receive a response. However, the press secretary of the ministry told the Russian news agency RIA that the West was jumping to conclusions.
“The urgency of open belligerent statements by a number of countries and European structures is remarkable. The situation is being directly and significantly exacerbated,” said the spokesman, claiming that it was “deliberately politicized”.
Protasevich is the co-founder and former editor of the Nexta channel on the Telegram social media platform, a major target of the political opposition in Belarus. His arrest has sparked outrage in Europe and the US, who demanded his immediate release.
Nexta drew Lukashenko’s ire last year after circumventing a news blackout and covering protests against Lukashenko following a general election that was widely believed to have been rigged in favor of the president. The Belarusian president has denied that the election is certain.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte (C) speaks to journalists at Vilnius International Airport on May 23, 2021 after the Ryanair passenger plane landed.
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Nexta was named an extremist organization by Belarus last year. In November Belarus called on Poland to extradite Protasevich, who has been in exile since 2019, and an opposition colleague to Belarus for citing his “continued criminal activity” and his commitment to Nexta and Nexta Live.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen compared the incident to a “kidnapping” on Sunday, while the actions of Belarus were described as an “act of state terrorism” by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who said it should not go unpunished.
The Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis went further and stated that the Belarusian airspace is completely unsafe for any commercial flight and this should be seen as such not only by the EU but also by the international community.
EU officials are expected to discuss on Monday whether further sanctions should be imposed on Belarus as some high-level officials (including the President) have already imposed sanctions on: like the EU states“The continued violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists among others.”
The US also strongly condemned the so-called “forced diversion” of the escape and arrest of journalist Protasevich.
“We demand his immediate release. This shocking act by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens. The first reports indicate the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military planes to escort the aircraft deeply worrying and in need of a full investigation, “said Foreign Minister Antony Blinken in a statement on Sunday.
He added that “in view of the indications that the emergency landing was due to false deception, we support the earliest possible meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events.”
The top US official concluded that “independent media is an essential pillar of the rule of law and an integral part of a democratic society. The United States once again condemns the continued harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists by the Lukashenka regime.”
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab called the incident an “unusual action by Lukashenko (who) will have serious consequences”, while Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted that “this cannot go without clear consequences on the part of the EU”.
On Sunday, EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean tweeted that “this type of situation will have consequences” and that we “will not accept that EU airline passengers will be put at risk”.
However, the impact on Belarus could in theory be simpler than in practice. Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and chief analyst for Russia at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC that Belarus’s actions are “getting the EU into trouble”.
“Belarus … is not really a state that can survive on its own, and Russia has already signaled that it will support the existing regime and continue to fund the Belarusian state … so it is really difficult to see what the EU can do do and what leverage it really has over Minsk at the moment, “he said.
“The sanctions can be tightened, but that will not really do much, and the bigger problem will remain that there really is not much that can be done with Russia in the corner of Belarus to create a real cost for such measures.”
Russia, which has a strong influence over Belarus, has advocated the defense of Belarus and described the West’s reaction as “shocking”.