Belarus’s hijacking is an act of state-sponsored terrorism

State-sponsored terrorism and air piracy are not normally things you associate with a European country.

These are the realities of actions by Belarus and its authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, who this week forced a civilian airliner to land in Minsk to arrest a dissident blogger who was a passenger on the plane.

The EU-registered aircraft was travelling between the two EU and Nato capitals of Athens and Vilnius when a Belarussian MiG fighter was scrambled to escort the Ryanair jet to land.

Secret service agents from the feared KGB also apparently boarded the aircraft in Greece and played a part in it forcing its unscheduled landing. According to state media in Belarus, President Lukashenko had personally given the go-ahead for the move.

The target of the operation was the journalist and dissident blogger Roman Protasevich who has lived in Lithuanian exile since the regime cracked down on the opposition following last year’s manipulated presidential elections.

Protasevich, who told fellow passengers he would face execution, joins the more than 400 political prisoners who have been arrested since large-scale public protests against the Lukashenko regime.

Initial reactions to the incident by both Ryanair and the European Commission seemed to misjudge the seriousness of the situation, not even making mention of the passenger taken off the plane.

Since then, things have moved apace with calls for a strong international response involving a no-fly zone over Belarus, tough sanctions against the perpetrators, targeting the finances of President Lukashenko and his allies, raising Belarus at the United Nations Security Council and G7, and supporting free media and civil society.

After 27 years in power, the only thing that really matters to President Lukashenko is maintaining his regime. In that, he has the full support of Russian president Vladmir Putin who sees Belarus as a key part of Russia’s sphere of influence and encroaching democracy as a weakening of his own position.

He’s been prepared to invade neighbouring Ukraine, annex the Crimea and continues to threaten its eastern border. It should also never be forgotten that Russian forces shot down a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine killing all 298 people aboard.

Reaction to the plane being forced to land in Belarus and the arrest of the dissident has received a warm welcome from prominent supporters of President Putin. Margarita Simonyan, who is editor of the pro-Kremlin RT television broadcaster, posted on Twitter that Mr Lukashenko has “played it beautifully”.

The international community will be measured in its response to the state-sponsored terrorism and air piracy of Belarus. By not acting decisively enough when Lukashenko stole the presidential elections last year and then brutally cracked down on the opposition, the democratic world signalled it was prepared to put up with his tinpot dictatorship.

Appeasing authoritarian dictators who break international norms cannot continue. Kidnapping and hijacking planes are the hallmarks of terrorist organisations and rogue states.

An early clampdown on transport links to Belarus can only be the start including a ban on overflights of Belarus, a ban on national Belarus carrier Belavia at European airports as well as a suspension of ground transport links.

Unless tough and meaningful measures follow, then the unacceptable behaviour will continue. It’s time to stand up for democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech in Belarus.

First appeared Edinburgh Evening News 25/05/21