The Week (US)
Belarus: A state-sponsored plane hijacking
Not content with jailing and torturing dissidents at home, Belarus’ dictator is now “hijacking” airliners to get at his critics, said Silke Bigalke in Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany). President Alexander Lukashenko this week sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania as it passed through Belarusian airspace, falsely claiming that the Palestinian militant group Hamas had put a bomb on board. The passenger plane was forced to land at Minsk and no bomb was found. But two passengers were detained— dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend—and a few others, likely Belarusian KGB agents, disembarked. Soon after, the regime released footage of the bruised Protasevich saying, “Right now, I am continuing to cooperate with investigators and making confessions regarding my role in organizing mass unrest in Minsk.” Protasevich is the founder of a channel on the Telegram messaging app that was the prime source of news for Belarusians during mass protests against Lukashenko’s rigged 2020 election. Passengers onboard the Ryanair flight said that as the plane began its descent to Minsk, the 26-year-old journalist turned pale and said, “A death sentence awaits me.” That’s not an understatement, because Lukashenko has labeled him a terrorist.
The European Union has been “shocked into unanimity” by this act of “state piracy,” said Le Monde (France) in an editorial. The bloc has banned Belarusian airlines from entering EU airspace and told European airlines to avoid flying over the country, and it is expected to issue economic sanctions in the coming days. Sanctions aren’t enough, said Gintautas Mazeikis in LRT.lt (Lithuania).
This is “open interference in the internal affairs of Lithuania.” Our country not only gave Protasevich asylum, it also hosts the entire Belarusian opposition, including its exiled leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. If Lukashenko is not stopped, there will be “more and more of these attacks.” Lithuanian authorities should immediately arrest some of the Belarusian KGB officers that are surely here tracking the dissidents. And we must mobilize our EU and NATO allies— because in this new cold war, Belarus has Russia’s backing.
The EU’s sanctions “have nothing to do with legality or even justice,” said Gevorg Mirzayan in Ukraina.ru (Russia). Belarus is free to do what it wants in its own airspace. And the EU issued no punishments when Ukraine forced down a Belarusian plane to arrest a pro-Russian activist in 2016. Nor in 1985, when four U.S. fighter jets compelled a chartered EgyptAir flight carrying Palestinian terrorists to land in Italy.
This kidnapping is of a piece with the Kremlin’s poisoning of Russian activist Alexei Navalny, said Leonid Ragozin in Politico .eu (Belgium). Like Protasevich, Navalny is a YouTube star who reaches the youth, and he stirred them to protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin. “What is it about bloggers that makes Eastern European dictators send fighter jets and chemical weapons experts after them?” These authoritarians fear that people will learn the truth about their corruption and brutality. That’s why the EU must redouble its support for dissidents. That “will do more to bring about the end of dictatorships than any number of sanctions.”