Written by Jack Vines
A bizarre and unnerving news story unfolded in Belarus last week after a commercial Ryanair flight was diverted and two passengers removed from the plane. The incident occurred on Sunday 23rd May when flight FR4978 was diverted to Minsk International Airport in Belarus. The flight was en-route from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania, but was over Belarusian airspace when the captain was supposedly informed of a security threat made against the aircraft.
The Ryanair aircraft was also intercepted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 aircraft and landed at Minsk.
The flight was then boarded by Belarusian officials who removed two people from the aircraft, Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sopega.
Protasevich is an outspoken journalist from Belarus, who had lived in exile in neighbouring Lithuania since 2019. He formerly ran Nexta, a private media outlet that distributed news through Telegram and their YouTube channel.
The 26-year-old had covered the widespread protests following President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election in 2020, mired by accusations of fraud and police brutality in response to gatherings across the country. In his absence, Protasevich had been charged with terrorism and inciting riots.
Sofia Sopega, a 23-year-old Russian citizen, has been accused of leaking personal information of police officials in response to the crackdown on anti-Lukashenko protests.
Since their detention, video recordings of Protasevich and Sopega confessing to a number of crimes have been published, but the entire scenario has shaken world leaders to the core.
At the time of the story breaking into the news, it was reported a bomb threat lead to the diversion of the flight, however subsequent searches concluded no bomb was found on board and the flight continued on to Vilnius later the same day. A further three passengers left the flight in Minsk, which has raised suspicions over the ultimate goal and influence of the diversion. President Putin and Lukashenko have both denied any involvement.
This accusation is further legitimised by passenger testimony that the Belarusian officials that boarded the plane were looking pleased with themselves after Protasevich’s removal, and there was no rush to evacuate any other passengers despite the bomb threat.
In an address on 24th May, US President Joe Biden stated; “Belarus’ forced diversion of a commercial Ryanair flight, travelling between two member states of the European Union, and subsequent removal and arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a Belarusian journalist traveling abroad, are a direct affront to international norms.”
“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr. Pratasevich. This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.”
“The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime.”
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, added to Biden’s sentiment, noting; “What happened yesterday is an international scandal. Lives of European civilians were put at risk. This is not acceptable.”
Lukashenko defiantly rejected the widespread-global condemnation of the incident. He defended the diversion by suggesting the interception of a Ryanair flight was necessary to protect his citizens from any harm befalling the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant in light of the bomb threat, as well as the passengers and crew on board.
Lukashenko also blasted the swift actions from the West as an attempt to ‘’suffocate’’ the state in an act of ‘’hybrid war’’, and warned that Russia – Belarus’ closest ally – would be next.
The Belarusian President initially pointed at Hamas as responsible for the threat, later changing story to a ProtonMail address, an encrypted email service based in Switzerland.
The ramifications for Belarus were swift after news broke of the grounding, adding to the considerable tensions between the former-Soviet state and the European Union. The country has been hit with sanctions since October 2020 in response to the crackdowns on protests and press freedom following Lukashenko’s dubious election victory in August, although protests began in May of that year after the President announced he was seeking another term in office.
President Lukashenko, his son Viktor and a further 86 officials are currently subject to travel bans and asset freezes from the EU. Seven Belarusian companies and organisations are also subject to these measures.
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To date, over 1300 injuries and 4 deaths have been recorded, whilst approximately 32,000 arrests have been made during protests, which have dwindled in size over recent months. More than 50 people are missing, including journalists and political figures.
After three bouts of sanctions on 1st October, 6th November and 17th December 2020, a further batch are set to be announced in the wake of the Ryanair incident, including banning all Belarusian airlines from entering EU airspace.
Belarus may find now find itself further isolated from its European neighbours, but they still have a staunch defender in Russia, who have experienced tricky relations with the EU and US in recent years. A Kremlin statement released on Wednesday 26th May defended Lukashenko’s ‘’reasonable’’ actions.
Lukashenko jetted off to Sochi to meet his Russian counterpart just two days after the Kremlin defended his actions.
Belarus now finds itself in another rift between the West and Russia in addition to the continued conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.
Whether the grounding of Ryanair flight FR4978 was justified or an act of state-sponsored hijacking is still in question. The incident is an eyeopener for the world, especially those involved in political journalism. This is not the first time the industry has found itself the target of sanctions from heads of state, but using a bomb threat as a pretext to ground a flight and coincidently arresting a dissident journalist is a particularly blazon act.