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Belarus hijacking

The danger on Europe’s doorstep

President Lukashenko has been waging war on ordinary Belarussians for almost a year, and now his “terror operation has gone global”, says Joerg Forbrig in Politico. The strongman of Minsk has stooped to “air piracy”, grounding a commercial Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania in Belarus’s capital last Sunday with the help of a Mig-29 fighter, a fake bomb threat and secret agents from the Belarussian KGB on board. His target was 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, a dissident blogger. “I am facing the death penalty,” Protasevich told one of his 170 fellow passengers before he was taken off the plane.

Sleepy Europe is waking up to the “new Iron Curtain” on its doorstep, says Sylvie Kauffmann in Le Monde. Lukashenko wouldn’t have dared to do anything of this magnitude without the support of Vladimir Putin, his “big Russian neighbour” – the two are meeting in Sochi today. The skies to our east have already claimed Moscow’s “number one opponent”, Alexei Navalny, poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok and only saved by a quick-thinking pilot who rerouted to Omsk. On Tuesday the EU told every airline to avoid Belarussian airspace, and sanctions will follow. But it’s too late for the puffy-eyed Protasevich, covered in bruises, who was wheeled out on state television to confess his sins 24 hours later. The message is as clear as Belarus’s skies: “Europe is no longer a refuge. No exile should feel safe there.”

It’s a terrible crime, says Glenn Greenwald in his Substack newsletter, but the outrage smacks of western “double standards”. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary labelled it a “state-sponsored hijacking”, and the US and EU swiftly took a similar line. Yet it was Barack Obama and Joe Biden who pioneered this tactic in 2013. When western intelligence heard that the American whistleblower Edward Snowden was fleeing Russia on the Bolivian president’s jet, the Bolivians were told that France, Italy and Spain had rescinded permission to enter their airspace. “Without enough fuel” to reach its destination, the plane landed in Vienna – where red-faced security officials discovered that Snowden wasn’t on board after all. The international community was furious, as it is now. What’s the difference?

I can think of a few, says Natalia Antonova in Foreign Policy. There was no bogus bomb scare. The plane’s grounding was not “conducted as a tool of crackdown” against a protest movement, nor did it involve “terrorising the passengers of a civilian jet”. And it didn’t have a monster like Lukashenko pulling the strings. Belarussians have been beaten, raped, kidnapped, tortured and given lengthy prison terms following the stolen election last August. Every person with a shred of decency said that Lukashenko had to go – yet he’s stronger than ever. He has even stuck to his bomb hoax story, blaming it on Hamas and claiming a warning came from Switzerland. Sanctions won’t work because, after 26 years in power, this out-of-control despot “has no limits”. The West needs to take bold action. If it doesn’t, despots the world over will ape this “state terrorism”.

Who is Roman Protasevich?

The 26-year-old journalist has been needling Lukashenko in blogs since 2010, says the independent Russian website Meduza. He shot to fame during last year’s protests as editor-in-chief of the country’s most prominent opposition news network, Nexta (pronounced “Nekh-ta”, meaning “someone”). It reaches 1.2m subscribers on the encrypted Telegram messaging platform, which works a bit like WhatsApp. In November 2020 Protasevich was added to Belarus’s terrorism watchlist – conviction could mean the death penalty.

Aged 15, the future dissident lost his presidential scholarship for gifted children after being arrested while playing guitar near a park protest. His father, a lieutenant colonel in the army for 29 years, was this month branded a traitor for refusing to denounce his son’s work. Roman’s mother, Natalya, who taught advanced mathematics at a Belarusian military academy until her son’s activities forced her to resign, says her boy is a hero. “We firmly believe that justice will prevail.”