Fri, January 21, 2022


Airlines shun Belarus airspace, deepening Lukashenko isolation over bomb hoax to arrest critic

Belarus on Tuesday confronted a return to international pariah status. Its skies were cleared of nearly all air traffic, its businesses braced for European Union sanctions, and pro- and anti-government residents readied to be more cut off from the West after their leaders forced an airliner to land to arrest an opposition journalist.

President Alexander Lukashenko, facing a furious wave of retaliation from the European Union, appeared defiant Tuesday, arresting more journalists and signaling he had no plans to be cowed by the measures adopted by EU leaders a day earlier.

Inside Belarus, Lukashenko's actions also sent a harsh message: Less than a year after mass protests to contest the strongman's rule, it is now harder than ever to escape his crackdowns or leave the country.

The events marked a new chapter for Belarus, as fresh details emerged over how a Ryanair plane filled with Lithuanian tourists returning from vacation in Greece was forced down over Belarusian territory on Sunday.

"The control tower in Minsk told the pilot that if he intends to land in Vilnius, the explosive might detonate. So that might have been one of the reasons why he made up his mind to turn around and go to Minsk," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in an interview.

Landsbergis said investigators were still unpacking the sequence of events that led to the sharp midair turnaround and subsequent arrests. But he said indications increasingly suggested that it was an operation directed exclusively out of Minsk, not one whose responsibility was shared with the Kremlin, Lukashenko's main backer.

"From a technical point of view, I think it was a Belarusian operation," Landsbergis said.

The details about the threat to the plane that were passed along - or invented - by Belarusian air traffic controllers echoed a purported transcript released by the Belarusian Transport Ministry on Tuesday, but the account was impossible to confirm.

The conversation's release signaled an attempt by Minsk to promote its version of events in the face of international condemnation. Ryanair and Lithuanian investigators declined to comment, citing the ongoing inquiry.

Once the plane was on the ground in Belarus, security officials made the passengers disembark, then arrested journalist Roman Protasevich and his traveling companion, Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen.

EU leaders on Monday also barred the country's national airline, Belavia, from flying over or landing in EU territory - a blow to the Belarusian economy but also to Belarusians who hope to escape Lukashenko's rule. Many land border crossings are closed because of coronavirus restrictions, further limiting movement.

Alina, a Belarusian who declined to give her surname for fear of retribution from authorities, was scheduled to fly to Poland with her husband on Wednesday after months of planning and saving to emigrate. But her Belavia flight could now be canceled depending on when the European Union's ban comes into force.

"Normal Belarusians are like hostages now," she said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I can certainly understand why flights crossing Belarus are banned, but banning Belarusian planes from going to the EU will just limit people's opportunity to leave here."

Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, noted it will still be possible for Belarusians to drive to the border and claim asylum.

But he also said that hurting the government is the point of the measures.

"Obviously we would like to hurt the regime. We would like to hurt the companies that actually benefit the regime, that allow them to take the decisions that they are taking, that allow them to hurt the people," he said. "The potential for imposing sanctions that would hurt the regime still hasn't been totally used up."

Flight radar showed planes taking circuitous routes Tuesday to avoid flying over the country. Austrian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Air France and Finnair all announced within two hours of one another Tuesday morning that they would avoid Belarusian airspace. Ukraine said it would suspend air traffic with Belarus starting midnight Wednesday.

The Belarusian Transport Ministry's aviation department said Tuesday it has invited representatives of several aviation agencies, including the International Civil Aviation Organization, and authorities in the European Union and the United States to investigate the Ryanair incident.

Belarusian officials on Monday said the bomb threat had come from Hamas, the Palestinian organization, which it denied.

Like other prominent activists, opposition journalist Protasevich had been living in exile in Lithuania, considered a haven from Lukashenko. Sunday's seizure of Ryanair Flight 4978, which European leaders compared to a hijacking, and Protasevich's subsequent arrest proved that merely flying over Belarus is now dangerous for Lukashenko's enemies.

Sapega, Protasevich's traveling companion, was "charged with a criminal offense" and ordered detained for at least two months at a facility run by Belarus's KGB state intelligence agency, her lawyer, Alexander Filanovich, told Russian media. No other details were given. "The lawyers have signed nondisclosure agreements," he said.

A Belarusian Telegram channel released a brief video of Sapega, seemingly in detention, in which she appeared to have been coerced into confessing that she edits a Telegram channel that publishes personal information about law enforcement officers. In the video, she rolls her eyes and appears to make clear she has been forced to deliver a rehearsed statement. Unlike Protasevich, in a video released by the same outlet a day earlier, she had no visible bruises.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Sapega may be linked to "crimes" in Belarus in August and September. That was the height of the anti-government protests in Belarus following an election won by Lukashenko - who has been in power 27 years - but denounced as rigged by opposition groups and others.

European policymakers who presided over previous periods of detente with Belarus expressed sadness that ordinary Belarusians would be hurt by the retaliatory measures. But they said that was acceptable collateral damage in a situation in which they see few other routes to sway decision-making in Minsk.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics once helped lead a European re-engagement with Belarus in an effort to draw Lukashenko away from Russian President Vladimir Putin and open Europe up to ordinary Belarusians - culminating in the dropping of most EU sanctions against Belarus in 2016.

"We saw that things improved," he said.

He credits Europe's opening up to travel for helping to inspire a new generation of young, democracy-minded Belarusians who wanted to help their nation grow into one more like the EU neighbors on its borders.

"There is not any attempt at calming this spiral of repression. It's getting worse by the day," said Rinkevics, who this week pushed for harsh measures against Belarus, including the ban on flights and sanctions against the big companies that undergird the country's economy.

Belarus's heavy-handed ruler since 1994, Lukashenko has waged a campaign of violence and repression against his opponents for nearly a year. In August elections, he arrested most of his foes and then, according to Western observers, falsified results to produce a crushing victory against the lone remaining candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Mass demonstrations calling for his ouster followed. When Belarusian authorities blocked Internet and cellphone service, Telegram, a popular social media and messaging app, continued to work. That made Protasevich's Nexta and Nexta Live channels on Telegram, which accumulated nearly 2 million subscribers, a main source for where, when and how to protest.

In November, Belarus placed Protasevich and Nexta's founder, Stepan Putilo, on a terrorist watch list with charges that could bring more than 12 years in prison. Protasevich and Putilo were the only Belarusian citizens on the list at the time.

Tikhanovskaya told reporters Tuesday that she had no doubt Protasevich was being tortured, and she called for tougher sanctions against Belarus.

Russia is Belarus's most important backer, and Moscow is likely to use Minsk's increased isolation from the West to pursue closer integration between the countries. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the EU decision to ban flights over Belarusian airspace as regrettable and costly.

"They preferred rushing into a decision at yesterday's summit, perhaps, without holding an inquiry, and released insistent recommendations for their airlines," Peskov said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking to reporters in Brussels on Tuesday, had a sharper view.

"This literally is an unprecedented act. It is absolutely unacceptable what the authorities of Belarus did there," she told reporters. "This forced landing put passengers in danger."

Published : May 26, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Isabelle Khurshudyan, Michael Birnbaum, Mary Ilyushina