Belarus accused of 'hijacking' plane to arrest activist, provoking outrage in the West

  • Belarus has provoked outrage after it reportedly forced a commercial flight to land and arrested opposition figure Roman Protasevich who was on board.
  • Belarus said that its air traffic controllers could not "force" the Ryanair plane to land, and instead gave the plane's crew "recommendations," Reuters reported.
  • Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC that Belarus's actions put the EU "in a bind."

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Belarus has provoked condemnation and outrage in the West after it reportedly forced a commercial flight carrying a political activist to land in the country and promptly arrested the opposition figure.

The Eastern European country, which has strong links with Russia, appears to have forced a Ryanair plane traveling to Lithuania from Greece to land in its capital Minsk in order to detain Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich, who was on board.

Belarus said on Monday that its air traffic controllers could not "force" the Ryanair plane to land, and instead gave the plane's crew "recommendations," Reuters reported citing Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

Belarusian state-owned news agency BelTA reported that authorities scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet to divert the flight as it neared the Lithuanian border following orders from the President Alexander Lukashenko.

Ryanair issued a statement in which it confirmed that the crew on flight FR4978 had been notified by Belarusian air traffic control of a potential security threat on board. The plane landed and safety checks were carried out but "nothing untoward was found."

CNBC contacted the Belarusian foreign ministry for comment Monday but is yet to receive a reply. However, the ministry's press secretary told Russian news agency RIA that the West was jumping to conclusions.

"The haste of openly belligerent statements on the part of a number of countries and European structures is striking. The situation is being directly and clearly aggravated" the spokesman said, claiming it was being "deliberately politicized."

Western outrage

Protasevich is a co-founder and former editor of the Nexta channel on the social media platform Telegram, a key destination for the political opposition in Belarus. His arrest has provoked outrage in Europe and the U.S. who called for his immediate release.

Nexta attracted the ire of Lukashenko last year after it bypassed a news blackout and reported on anti-Lukashenko protests following a general election widely believed to have been rigged in the president's favor. The Belarusian president has denied the election was fixed.

Nexta was designated an extremist organization by Belarus last year. In November, Belarus asked Poland to extradite Protasevich, who has been living in exile since 2019, and a fellow opposition activist to Belarus for what it called their "continuing criminal activity" and involvement with Nexta and Nexta Live.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen likened the incident to a "hijacking" on Sunday, while Belarus' actions were dubbed "an act of state terrorism" by Poland's prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who said it must not go unpunished.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis went further, stating that he believed "Belarusian airspace is completely unsafe for any commercial flight, and it should be deemed this not only by EU but by international community."

'Shocking act'

EU officials are likely to discuss on Monday whether more sanctions should be imposed on Belarus, which has already seen a number of its high-level officials (including the president) targeted with sanctions for, as the EU states, "the ongoing violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists, among others."

The U.S. also strongly condemned what it called the "forced diversion" of the flight and arrest of journalist Protasevich.

"We demand his immediate release. This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens. Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Sunday.

He added that "given indications the forced landing was based on false pretences, we support the earliest possible meeting of the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review these events."

The top U.S. official concluded that "independent media are an essential pillar supporting the rule of law and a vital component of a democratic society. The United States once again condemns the Lukashenka regime's ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists."

The U.K.'s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the incident an "outlandish action by Lukashenko (that) will have serious implications," while German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted that "this cannot go without clear consequences on the part of the EU."

On Sunday, the European Commissioner for Transport Adina Valean tweeted that "this kind of situation will have consequences" and that we "will not accept that passengers on EU airlines are put in harm's way."

'Sanctions … won't really accomplish much'

Repercussions for Belarus might be easier in theory than in practice, however. Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC that Belarus's actions put the EU "in a bind."

"Belarus … is not really a state that can survive on its own and Russia has already signaled it will back up the regime in place and will continue to fund the Belarusian state … so it's really difficult to see what the EU can do and what area of leverage it really has over Minsk at this point," he said.

"Sanctions can be intensified, but that won't really accomplish much and the bigger issue will remain that with Russia in Belarus' corner there really isn't much you can do to impose real costs for actions like this."

For its part, Russia, which exerts a strong influence over Belarus, has stepped in to defend Belarus and slammed the West's reaction, describing it as "shocking."

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