The Belarus plane hijacking reflects appeasement of tyranny

Lukashenko hijacked a European civil aircraft because he thought he could get away with it. History shows he can. 

Roman Protasevich was arrested in Minsk, Belarus on March 26, 2017 along with dozens of other protesters at a rally [File: AP/Sergei Grits]

On May 23, the world watched as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko used his air force to intercept a civilian airliner on the pretext of a bogus bomb threat, grounded it in Minsk, and kidnapped prominent opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his fiancé before eventually freeing the other passengers.

This incident – reminiscent of a spy thriller – was brazen, but not entirely unprecedented. It represents merely the latest event in a dangerous pattern of authoritarians going the distance to scare and silence voices of opposition. Lukashenko upped the ante by violating multiple international norms at once, but tyrants have a long history of suppressing dissent, both at home and far beyond their borders. And it is getting worse.

The brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 is the most notorious case to date of transnational repression, but there are countless more. In May 2017, Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azeri opposition journalist disappeared from the streets of Tbilisi only to resurface in neighbouring Azerbaijan facing criminal charges. In August 2020, exiled Rwandan opposition leader Paul Rusesabagina stepped onto a charter flight bound for Burundi but instead ended up in Rwanda, where he was arrested and charged with “terrorism”. A recent report by Freedom House catalogued 608 instances of transnational repression since 2014.

These incidents are increasing precisely because they are met with impunity. Ever since the most recent fraudulent election in Belarus in August, Lukashenko has imprisoned and tortured thousands of Belarusians, with the West resorting to mostly thoughts and prayers. Lukashenko’s paranoia has reached levels of utter absurdity, from appearing in public wielding a gun to locking up people for wearing white and red socks – the colours of the opposition flag. That his regime went to such audacious lengths to seize Protasevich suggests how crucial the role of independent journalists have been for the country’s ongoing revolution.

Immediately after last year’s post-election uprising, the Kremlin, Belarus’s main benefactor, sent a team of Russia Today propagandists to Minsk after many of Lukashenko’s own state journalists resigned in protest. Viewership of state TV channels remains abysmal, and so Lukashenko began to wage a war against alternative media. Protasevich co-founded Nexta, a Telegram channel with more than one million subscribers. Nexta documented, in gruelling detail, the numerous public beatings and arrests by Lukashenko’s security forces, and amplified details of demonstrations nationwide. In November, the KGB added Protasevich to a terrorist watchlist and accused him of organising mass riots. If he is charged with terrorism, he could face life imprisonment or even the death penalty. The current charges against him – inciting public disorder and social hatred – carry a sentence of up to 12 years.

On May 18, the Belarusian authorities shut down the country’s most prominent news website, which had monthly traffic of 150-200 million. On May 24, another batch of legislative changes was announced that aims to suffocate any remaining independent voices. Journalists are now banned from covering unsanctioned meetings, organising or participating in public events, and from publishing public opinion surveys conducted without specific accreditation.

Repression against dissidents in exile and an obsession with shutting down access to information are intricately connected. The regime is worried it can no longer control the public narrative.

Part of it is its own fault: its utter failure to manage and even acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many Belarusians to seek alternative sources of information and learn how to use VPNs to circumvent state censorship. Independent media consumption skyrocketed. The regime’s desperate moves against these outlets mask its powerlessness to rule by any other method than terror.

The European Union and the United States governments have already begun to reroute their aircraft around Belarusian airspace and have banned the Belarusian state airline from landing in EU airports. Such moves may seem bold but it is difficult to see how this harms an already isolated regime. Further travel restrictions on Belarus might even make it harder for its citizens to escape.

Independent polling is effectively banned in Belarus, but it is estimated that in the first two months following the August election, more than 13,500 Belarusians fled to Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states. Of the seven members of the Coordination Council set up by the opposition on the heels of the mass protests last August, all are either imprisoned or in exile.

As major powers mull their responses to Lukashenko’s latest outrageous crime, dictators will be watching carefully. If there is no harsh action against the Belarusian regime, they will interpret this as another blank cheque to terrorise their citizens.

Apart from forceful sanctions, it is important to direct more support to independent media both in and outside Belarus to enable the country’s beleaguered but brave citizens to continue documenting the regime’s abuses, organising resistance and fighting for a better future.

Elevating Belarusian voices in the Western press is essential. Easing visa restrictions and strengthening asylum systems would make it possible for Belarusians to live and work abroad, as the United Kingdom has done for Hong Kongers pushed out by growing authoritarianism. If the world cannot stop Lukashenko from tormenting people inside his only country, the least it can do is try to keep them safe outside.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.