Belarus has drawn international condemnation for forcing a commercial jet to land on Sunday and arresting an opposition journalist onboard.

The sudden grounding of the Ryanair flight, which some European leaders have called state-sponsored hijacking or terrorism, has raised concerns that flying through repressive regimes may be unsafe for activists and journalists. And it marked the latest attempt by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, often called “Europe’s last dictator,” to quash dissent.

Here’s what you need to know about the Belarusian leader.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who is Alexander Lukashenko?
  • How has he dealt with opposition?
  • How has the West reacted?

Who is Alexander Lukashenko?

Lukashenko, 66, held posts in the Soviet Army and the communist youth organization and party when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union. He was elected to parliament in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990 and was the only deputy to oppose an agreement that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

He became the first president of the Republic of Belarus in 1994. His official website describes him as “a people’s politician” and “president of the ordinary people.” But his nearly three-decade rule has been marked by electoral irregularities, human rights abuses and moves to consolidate power.

In 1996, Lukashenko persuaded voters to approve constitutional amendments that expanded the authority of the presidency. When Western countries criticized the move, he temporarily expelled U.S. and European Union ambassadors.

Lukashenko has received significant financial and political support from Russia, which is a key ally in disputes with the West. But Belarus has resisted Russia’s push for a unified state.

Maria Zakharava, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, came to the defense of Belarus after the flight grounding, accusing the United States of hypocrisy.

How has he dealt with opposition?

Lukashenko brooks little dissent.

The elections he has won have been marred by allegations of vote tampering. For most of his time in power, he was able to crush protests in response, which were often small and confined to Minsk, Bloomberg News reported.

But the 2020 election roiled Belarus and brought fresh scrutiny to its autocratic leader. Lukashenko sought to keep rivals off the ballot ahead of the August vote, but opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who drew huge crowds at campaign rallies, was allowed to run.

Lukashenko claimed he had won a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote, an outcome many Western leaders dismissed as fraudulent. Lukashenko has insisted that no laws were broken during the election. Tikhanovskaya fled the country, and tens of thousands of Belarusians protested the outcome.

The demonstrations, fueled by a struggling economy and what critics called Lukashenko’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, marked the most significant threat to his hold on power since he took office. “You are talking about unfair elections and want to have fair elections?” he asked workers at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant in August. They shouted “Yes” in response. “I am answering your question. We held elections. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections.”

Thousands were arrested and at least three died “as a result of police actions” at the start of the protest movement in August, according to Human Rights Watch. United Nations human rights experts received reports of more than 450 cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees in the wake of the election.

Tikhanovskaya declared a “People’s Ultimatum,” demanding that Lukashenko step down by late October. When he clung to power, tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets and many were violently dispersed by security forces.

Anti-government demonstrations continued throughout the fall, as did Lukashenko’s repression: Police had arrested more than 25,000 by mid-November, Human Rights Watch said, and more than 100 opposition figures were jailed. In November, Belarus placed Roman Protasevich, the journalist pulled from the flight Sunday, on a terrorist watch list, charging him with three protest-related crimes.

Last week, Lukashenko signed into law a measure that protects police and security forces from responsibility for shooting at protesters. Lukashenko’s government has also continued its crackdown on journalists, jailing a freelancer for German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle and taking offline the leading independent news website Tut.by this month.

How has the West reacted?

Western countries have sanctioned Lukashenko’s government at various points since he took office. Lukashenko often criticizes the West for meddling in domestic affairs.

The United States levied travel restrictions and financial sanctions on individuals and state-owned entities after the 2006 election in Belarus, which the United States criticized as “neither free nor fair.” Belarus retaliated to a tightening of sanctions in 2008 by expelling several dozen U.S. diplomats. Relations between Belarus and Western countries eased somewhat in 2015 and 2016, and the United States and Belarus announced that they would exchange ambassadors again in 2019.

But after the 2020 election and subsequent protests in Belarus, the United States placed a new round of sanctions on officials there. Since taking office in January, President Biden has blocked transactions with nine major Belarus oil and petrochemical companies and placed sanctions on 109 officials.

Europe, which also does not recognize the 2020 election results, imposed a new raft of sanctions on officials, including Lukashenko, in the fall. European leaders reacted with shock and outrage to the grounding of the Ryanair flight and Protasevich’s arrest on Sunday. On Monday, they agreed to impose sectoral sanctions on Belarus and to prohibit European Union airlines from flying over Belarus’s airspace. Latvia, Lithuanian, Ukraine and the United Kingdom have already sought to reroute flights around Belarus.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called Lukashenko’s grounding of the plane a “brazen affront to international peace” and said the Biden administration has demanded an investigation.

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