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A 26-year-old young man became very nervous when the plane began to descend unexpectedly. "They are going to kill me," he told a stewardess who responded evasively. The man did not scream, but he could have, he knew that when he set foot in the Minsk airport he would be arrested by the Belarusian authorities, and that he could expect 15 years in prison, although it was not a crazy possibility that he would be sentenced to death. Journalist Roman Protasevich had left his native Belarus in 2019, fearing arrest for spreading anti-government information. He then took refuge in Lithuania, from where he continued his activity through websites such as Nexta. But the presidential elections last August marked the beginning of a social explosion and a hunt in response of such a level that it is no longer enough to be out of the country.
Aleksandr Lukashenko has been President of Belarus since 1994 and has won every election with around 80% of the votes, at least officially. Last year, for the first time, an opposition candidate appeared with serious chances of contesting his command, although, again, that magical 80% appeared in favor of the Minsk boss. There were massive protests throughout the boreal summer that were harshly repressed, and the main opposition representatives had to go into exile or ended up imprisoned along with at least 30,000 protesters. As if that was not enough, seven people were murdered and more than a thousand cases of torture were registered. In November, local authorities announced that they would investigate Protasevich on charges related to "organizing mass riots, disturbing public order and inciting social hatred." The national security agency, better known as the KGB, considered him involved "in terrorist activities." He was one of hundreds of persecuted journalists in Belarus.
On Sunday, May 23rd, Poratsevich traveled to Lithuania from Greece, where he had attended an event with exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya. A few minutes after landing in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, his flight was diverted by the Belarusian authorities to Minsk under the pretext of an alleged bomb threat. Why land in Minsk if the destination airport was the closest one? In the first official statement from the Ryanair airline there were no explanations, it simply referred to the threat, reported from Belarus. It was Lukashenko himself who ordered to stop the civilian plane and send a military plane to escort it to the ground. "We must land, we have no alternative," the stewardess replied to Protasevich. The civilian plane, from a private Irish company, had been hijacked, not by pirates or terrorists, but by a state and under the direct order of its president.
Seven hours later, the aircraft finally took off for Vilnius. According to the Lithuanian authorities, of the 126 passengers who boarded in Athens, 5 remained in Minsk: Protasevich, his girlfriend (of Russian citizenship) and three men whose identity was not revealed. Why would they decide to interrupt their journey? The young Belarusian journalist had noticed that someone was following him at the Greek airport and was trying to take photos of his documentation. Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary said that there was "state sponsored piracy" and claimed that there were KGB agents on the plane. Now Protasevich is in custody and joins the other 29 journalists imprisoned in Belarus.
Various governments and international organizations expressed concern and condemned Lukashenko's actions. New sanctions were announced against Belarus and against its flag carrier Belavia, in addition to restrictions and route changes to avoid flying over Belarusian airspace, now considered dangerous.
The hijacking of a plane represents a dangerous precedent, but also a test for the European Union and other Western governments pushing for change in Belarus or, at least, making it clear to Lukashenko that his actions have international consequences. The challenge is to personally affect the president and not the citizens who already have to deal with government persecution. Imposing travel restrictions does not affect Lukashenko or his inner circle, but the hundreds of thousands of Belarusians with relatives in other European countries. On the other hand, trade sanctions can alienate Minsk from the European Union and bring it even closer to Moscow, its traditional ally, something that European Union prefers to avoid; although, undoubtedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be satisfied with the eventual need to financially support a leader that he doesn’t even like. Belarus represents for Russia a kind of containment against the member countries of NATO, but it is difficult to believe that Putin would support Lukashenko in such a crazy and, above all, evident maneuver as it is to hijack a plane.
International influence can lead to some progress, to some agreement, but that has not happened so far. Little has changed since the August elections and the beginning of the repression, simply because Belarus is closing itself more and more towards the interior of its borders and its actions have been limited to persecuting protesters or accusing journalists of being “terrorists”. Meanwhile, representatives of the opposition and civil society travel across the continent trying to disseminate information and build a certain international solidarity. Perhaps that is the only way for Belarus to stop being the pariah state that Lukashenko has turned it into.