On Monday, May 24, the EU announced it would be imposing new sanctions on Belarus. In addition, the EU’s heads of state and government confirmed it would close its airspace and airports to Belarusian planes and instruct EU airlines to avoid flying over the country.
The actions come the day after a Ryanair flight en route from Athens to the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet while flying above the country’s airspace and forcibly diverted to Minsk because of a supposed bomb threat from the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Belarusian authorities then promptly arrested Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist and activist who was on board, as well as his 23-year-old girlfriend.
Hamas has denied involvement, and EU members remain skeptical, with German chancellor Angela Merkel commenting that the claim was “completely implausible.”
The developments this past week can be traced back to the Belarusian presidential election held in August of last year and the subsequent violent crackdown on those protesting the result. On August 9, the president of Belarus, Alexander G. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, won re-election with 80% of the vote. Yet, in light of Lukashenko’s response (or lack thereof) to the global coronavirus pandemic — which saw the president downplay the virus’s severity and take a hands-off approach — and the fact that the economy has been struggling, many believed that vote tally to be highly unlikely. Restrictions on ballot access and the barring of independent observers further contributed to the perception that the election was rigged.
Following the election, protesters took to the streets, and demonstrations ensued for months. The government responded with a violent crackdown on protesters and journalists. It has also exiled or imprisoned many opposition candidates and leaders.
It was against this backdrop that Belarusian authorities detained Protasevich on Sunday. Protasevich was a former editor of Nexta, a Telegram channel that has given voice to the opposition throughout the 2020 election and, afterward, and a current contributor to Belamova, a different Telegram channel. Although Protasevich was exiled to Lithuania in 2019, he continued to cover the election from afar and is now charged with terrorism and inciting riots.
A video of Protasevich was released Monday in which the activist stated that he was in good health and confessed to the charge of incitement. Yet many believe the statements were made under duress.
Although Russia seems to be in support of Belarus, with Putin calling the West’s reaction “an outburst of emotion,” the EU’s swift response to condemn Sunday’s arrest and impose sanctions on Belarus was met with support from the rest of the international community. The UK, for example, has suspended the operating permit for Belarus’s state airline, Belavia. Further, the US announced it was working in coordination with the EU to compile a list of individuals and entities to sanction. The US has also instructed American airlines to “exercise extreme caution” if they decide to fly over Belarus. Finally, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg indicated it was also considering taking action. Given the fluidity of the situation, however, it remains to be seen what specific actions the international community will take.