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

Key Points
  • Belarus forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk and arrested a passenger, dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.
  • "We demand his immediate release," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. "This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens."

Belarus provoked outrage in the West after one of its warplanes forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk and arrested a passenger, dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it a "shocking act." More than 170 people were reportedly aboard.

The plane, on a flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, was in Belarus airspace when it was intercepted and forced to land in its capital Minsk. Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist and passenger on the flight, was then arrested.

Former chief editor of Telegram channel Nexta, Roman Protasevich, who was detained in Minsk onboard a Ryanair plane that made an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital.
NurPhoto | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Belarus, an ally of Russia, said Monday its air traffic controllers could not "force" the Ryanair flight 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 strongman President Alexander Lukashenko.

Ryanair 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.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte (C) speaks to journalists at Vilnius International Airport on May 23, 2021, following the landing of the Ryanair passenger plane.

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, to Belarus for what it called his "continuing criminal activity" and involvement with Nexta and Nexta Live.

Journalists 'the main target'

Franak Viacorka is senior advisor to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus' opposition leader who is also currently in exile, this time in Lithuania. He told CNBC on Monday that Protasevich was one of many disrupters challenging Lukashenko's regime.

"He was always fighting for justice and he was the symbol of the young person who disagrees with the government and who wants change," he said.

"He's not the only one. Right now there are 3,000 criminal cases open against young people, journalists, teachers, doctors ... but Roman was one of the most vocal, and I think journalists are the main target for the regime right now."

Viacorka said he expected that Protasevich would now be in the custody of the KGB (Ryanair's CEO said earlier Monday that he believed there were Belarusian KGB operatives on board the flight) and that his safety was potentially at risk. "I know for sure that the KGB will not let him go easily," he added.

'Shocking act'

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen likened the incident to a "hijacking," while Belarus' actions were dubbed "an act of state terrorism" by Polish 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."

EU officials are likely to discuss on Monday whether to impose more sanctions on Belarus. It has already seen several high-level officials, including the president, targeted with sanctions for what the EU called "the ongoing violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists, among others."

Belarus' Lukashenko is now an international threat, former ambassador says
Belarus' Lukashenko is now an international threat, former ambassador says

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

"We demand his immediate release," Secretary of State Blinken said in a statement. "This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko 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."

He added that "given indications the forced landing was based on false pretenses, 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 practicer. 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."