Belarus skyjacking to get dissident journalist rattles EU

ATHENS – An incident, in which a Belarusian warplane intercepted a flight between EU-members Greece and Lithuania and forced it down in Minsk on May 23, where a dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested might have set a dangerous precedent for international aviation.

“So far, air traffic regulations were the area where international cooperation worked largely reliably and not disturbed by unpredictable political needs,” GLOBSEC Policy Institute Director Alena Kudzko told New Europe on May 26, adding that this incident might change the trust that the air space is safe.

In an incident denounced by Western countries as “state piracy,” Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly personally ordered the MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept the Ryanair plane to the Minsk airport after a bomb threat.

“If it worked for Lukashenko, why wouldn’t any government ground flights at will to go after wanted passengers?” Kudzko asked. “This incident also directly endangers the safety of all passengers on board. Airlines and individual travelers might want to think twice about the routes they are to take,” she added.

According to the GLOBSEC expert who was born and grew up in Belarus, the harsh international criticism and reaction aims to avoid the incidence becoming a precedent as it would signify lawlessness in airspace. Kudzko noted, however, the sanctions, including making Belarus effectively a no-fly zone and banning the Belarusian national carrier from flying to European countries, are a message not only to Lukashenko though. “This is also a message to any other government, any other regime, or nongovernmental actor: this behavior is not going to be tolerated, do not even think about it,” she said.

Asked if EU and international response was enough, Kudzko said the European Union and other countries are reacting both swiftly and consequentially. “It is an important and clear sign that this behavior – by anyone, not just Lukashenko – is not acceptable,” she said.

A different question is also what impact the sanctions will have on Belarus and the Lukashenko-led authorities. “The EU has done an impressive job mobilizing within 24 hours. This quick reaction changes the dynamics of the situation and clearly indicates not only the position of the EU but also sets a path to action that goes beyond strong verbal statements. Of course, the sanctions have not entered into force yet – it was a political agreement, the details still need to be worked out,” Kudzko said.

She stressed that any sanctions should be thought about only as part of the strategy towards a particular country or a particular problem. “Sanctions alone, especially not particularly strong ones as in the case of Belarus until now, are rarely sufficient to change the regime. As part of the broader package, they do play an important role in defunding the regime, undermining its economic and political sustainability, and narrowing the scope of maneuver for the authorities. Also, to have a painful effect, sanctions need time,” Kudzko said, explaining that with each passing month and year, cumulative effect is stronger.

“When I am talking about a broader package, it is important to remember that there are other policies in place, introduced by the EU and other Western countries, that also play an important role and that need to be further strengthened,” Kudzko said. “Here, I mean support to the victims of repressions, support to independent media, visa free provisions for Belarusians, economic package for post-Lukashenko Belarus to support the reform process,” she added.

Enquiring minds want to know

Pratasevich’s arrest after the airplane was diverted to Belarus appears to have been carried out with the help of secret agents operating on Greek territory, Kathimerini reported. According to the Greek newspaper, while still at Athens International Airport, Pratasevich is said to have informed colleagues via the Telegram messaging application that he was approached by an unknown Russian-speaking man who took a snap of him. Reportedly the agents also boarded the same flight as Pratasevich and got off in Minsk where the plane was diverted.

Analysts across the EU and in world capitals are probably wondering if this incident highlighted any weaknesses in the Greek or EU/ Schengen visa issuance system as its become clear intelligence operatives somehow entered the Schengen zone and boarded the flight in Athens.

Backed by Russia, Lukashenko has managed to successfully crack down on protesters, with Belarus’ security services remaining loyal to him. “It is yet unclear what role Russia has played in the incident per se,” Kudzko told New Europe. “So far, we do not have many details. Russia has also had a rather reserved reaction to the incident. While supporting the line that Lukashenko acted within the law and followed proper rules to respond to the security alert, the Kremlin seems not to be willing to engage too much. There is a bit of a ‘wait-and-see’ tactic that gives the Kremlin time to calibrate its reaction based on the developments inside Belarus but also taking into consideration the international reactions,” the GLOBSEC Policy Institute Director said.

“But in general, indeed, (Russian President) Vladimir Putin is the main, if not only, remaining supporter of Lukashenko who also provides financial, political and other help. Putin knows it very well. He will and is already playing a king maker. This is also why the argument that sanctions push Lukashenko closer to Russia do merit a serious concern,” Kudzko said.

Asked if the Belarus incident would further deteriorate relations between Brussels and Moscow, she said EU-Russia relations have been sour and have been turning sourer. The situation in Belarus is a contributing factor to the deterioration of the relations, but it is not the only one. So far, I don’t see a clear strategy proposed by either the EU or Russia that would improve the state of the relations between Brussels and Moscow. At least on the EU side, Kudzko said, there is an understanding that this state of relations is neither stable nor desirable and there is a realization that there should be a strategy that is broader than sanctions. How exactly it will or could look like is not well elaborated at this point.

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