Tue, May 25, 2021

FAST THINKING: Europe strikes back at Belarus

Fast Thinking by Atlantic Council

Related Experts: Hanna Liubakova, Benjamin Haddad, Daniel Fried,

Belarus Crisis Management Eastern Europe Economic Sanctions European Union Security & Defense

A Ryanair aircraft, which was carrying Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and diverted to Belarus, where authorities detained him, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania on May 23, 2021. Photo via REUTERS/Andrius Sytas.

GET UP TO SPEED

How do you respond to air piracy by Europe’s last dictator? After Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair passenger jet flying through their airspace to land so they could imprison dissident blogger Roman Protasevich, world leaders are scrambling to put the screws on the country’s president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Europe has imposed economic sanctions and restrictions on Belarusian planes, while US President Joe Biden has indicated that he will follow suit. Why did Lukashenka take such an aggressive step? What made Europe act with unusual swiftness and boldness? Will Vladimir Putin feel the heat? Our experts break it all down.

Today’s expert reaction courtesy of

  • Daniel Fried (@AmbDanFried): Weiser Family distinguished fellow and former US assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia

THE VIEW IN BELARUS

  • Hanna says the brazen arrest of Protasevich, the man behind popular Telegram channels that broadcast news without a government filter, fits with Lukashenka’s long-running campaign to lock up “bloggers and independent journalists” in order “to silence all dissent.”
  • Lukashenka, she adds, “is keen to promote the idea that it is digital technologies—and not his own misrule, human-rights violations, and mounting poverty—that has mobilized Belarusians to protest against him.”
  • Until now, “Lukashenka’s fight against his pro-democracy opponents had been an almost exclusively domestic affair,” Hanna says, but the hijacking “is a reminder that Lukashenka is not just an internal Belarusian issue.”
  • Hanna welcomed the EU sanctions and any effort to make sure “Lukashenka and his cronies [are] cut off from their financial lifelines.” But there’s more the international community can do, she adds. “It is vital to increase support to Belarusian civil society and independent media,” she argues.

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EUROPEAN UNITY

  • Ben says that while Europe’s actions “are strong, none of them are utterly surprising and were thus probably considered by Lukashenka when assessing this operation.”
  • The next step, Ben tells us, should be escalating sanctions on Belarus if Protasevich is not released, “while continuing to support and recognize the [Belarusian] opposition after last year's stolen election.”
  • Ben lays out the broader stakes here: “A plane from an Irish company, flying from Athens to Vilnius, was hijacked to arrest a journalist who had sought refuge in Poland.” The act was thus an assault on “European sovereignty” and poses “a major credibility test for the European Union,” he says.
  • “European leaders have claimed they want to ‘speak the language of power,’” Ben notes. “This is an opportunity to demonstrate they can do more than speak” that language and actually “leverage the economic clout of the EU.”

THE RUSSIA CONNECTION

  • Reports about Russian involvement in the operation have not been substantiated. Still, Putin has long been Lukashenka’s biggest backer and seems determined not to allow Belarus’s democracy movement to achieve power (despite evidence that it actually won last year’s presidential elections). “Holding Putin to account for his client’s misdeeds will not prove easy, but needs to be weighed,” Dan tells us. The White House announced on Tuesday that Belarus will be on the agenda for a Biden-Putin summit in Geneva on June 16.
  • A broader response to Russia’s support for the Belarusian dictator could be more in line with the work of Protasevich and imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Dan says the United States and Europe could “increase their support for investigative journalism, both inside and outside Belarus and Russia, reaching both societies. Fight regime disinformation with good information, and do so for the long term.”

Further reading