President Donald Trump, though, was conspicuously muted in his response to the situation — a reflection not just of his curious soft spot for autocrats in former Soviet states, but also the looming likelihood at the time that he too could be involved in shenanigans to manipulate his own country’s election results. (The Trump administration would later slap sanctions on Belarus officials and state companies.) Biden, though, denounced the “assaults on democracy” carried out by the Lukashenko administration and vowed principled action if elected.
“My administration will never shy away from standing up for democratic principles and human rights, and we will work with our democratic allies and partners to speak with one voice in demanding these rights be respected,” he wrote.
Since coming to office, the Biden administration renewed sanctions on Belarus, including blocking transactions with nine major Belarus oil and petrochemical companies. It also placed sanctions on 109 government officials linked to its campaigns of repression. But events over the weekend may mean it will face pressure to get considerably tougher.
On Sunday, in what appears to be part of a wider crackdown on opposition activists and independent media, authorities in Belarus took the dramatic step of intercepting a civilian airliner carrying a prominent dissident with a MiG-29 fighter jet and forcing it to divert to the country’s capital Minsk. Upon landing, the journalist Roman Protasevich was seized by Belarus officials. The Ryanair flight had left the Greek capital Athens and was headed to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Various irate European leaders cast the interruption of its flight path as a “hijacking,” an “act of terrorism” and grounds for further punishment of an already isolated regime.
“Protasevich, 26, ran the popular social media Telegram channel Nexta, which exposed Belarusian police brutality during the anti-government demonstrations last year. The channel and its sister channel, Nexta Live, have close to 2 million subscribers,” my colleagues Isabelle Khurshudyan and Michael Birnbaum explained. “In November, he was added to a list of individuals purportedly involved in terrorist activities.”
Protasevich, who has been living in exile in Vilnius, now faces more than 12 years in prison.
According to Nexta’s editor in chief Tadeusz Giczan, Belarus secret agents boarded the plane in Athens and, once over their country’s airspace, proceeded to intimidate the airline’s pilot and staff about a supposed bomb threat. The plane was far closer to Vilnius than Minsk, the Flightradar24 website shows, but was nevertheless compelled to turn around. The flight eventually took off for the Lithuanian capital without Protasevich.
The incident raised alarms across Europe, both over its brazen nature as well as its wider implications for regional air travel. Not unlike his counterparts in Russia, Lukashenko demonstrated that his political opponents are not safe even in de facto exile. In recent weeks, authorities in Minsk have raided the offices and studios of a number of media outlets producing coverage critical of Lukashenko and his associates, as well as taking offline a leading independent news site.
Belarus will likely be front and center during discussions at a Monday meeting of the European Council, where continental leaders are expected to push for new punitive measures against the Lukashenko regime. Former European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted that the Belarus leader was “a threat not only to his own citizens but also to international security. His act of state terrorism demands an immediate and tough reaction of all European governments and institutions.”
“The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, declaring “enough is enough.”
The Biden administration also indicated its strong disapproval. In a statement Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. “strongly condemns” the flight diversion as well as “the Lukashenka regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists.”
“We are closely coordinating our response with our parters, including the EU and Lithuanian and Greek officials,” read the statement, which called for Protasevich’s immediate release.
But what happens next is tricky, not least as Biden prepares for a possible meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month. Faced with intensifying European pressure, Lukashenko may turn to Moscow for greater support and protection, a move that could possibly see tighter security and political integration between the two countries. That’s bad news for ordinary citizens in Belarus desperate to build a real democracy. It also further complicates matters for a Biden administration that’s already taking flak from the right for not doing more to stymie the progress of a major Russian-backed natural gas pipeline to Europe.
In Washington, a number of think tanks have laid out policy proposals for a more assertive approach on Belarus by the Biden administration. Beyond new sanctions and more robust security cooperation with Belarus’s European neighbors, they advised Biden to refer to Lukashenko as the country’s former president, to fly at the State Department the old red-white Belarus flag popular with anti-Lukashenko protesters, and to invite leading opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to the White House.
A Washington Post editorial also called for further action against Russia and greater efforts to protect activists and reporters in the crosshairs of autocratic regimes. “The Biden administration must use leverage contained in legislation passed by Congress to sanction any Russians who assist with the Belarus crackdown,” The Post noted. “Meanwhile, Ms. Tikhanovskaya has suggested that all those who persecute journalists should be targeted for sanctions.”
Experts warn, though, that the West has limited leverage. Earlier in the crisis, Russia extracted vague commitments from Lukashenko to enact constitutional reform and modernize the country’s political system. But that was likely window dressing for a regime that presides over an increasingly polarized nation split between its supporters and dogged, embattled opponents.
“This atmosphere of a cold civil war is not only causing Lukashenko to become more repressive, but also to put off indefinitely the political reform promised to Moscow, or to do it purely for show,” wrote Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “With de-escalation becoming almost impossible, society becoming polarized, and fewer and fewer people prepared to forgive the regime, the likelihood is growing of the Belarusian crisis seeing yet another spontaneous escalation of violence.”