Dictator over-reach in Belarus

It’s been quite a while since we looked at Belarus, where a fraudulent election lest year led to a revolutionary situation. Since then, a stalemate has prevailed: president Alexander Lukashenko has been unable to crush his opponents and return the country to normality, but those opponents have been unable to marshal the force necessary to overthrow him.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, with many other problems on his hands, has continued his patronage of Lukashenko while taking the opportunity to tighten his embrace of Belarus. At some point he may well decide that the dictator himself is dispensable.

Now, perhaps, something to break the deadlock. Overnight, Belarusian authorities diverted a Ryanair flight to Minsk and removed and detained an opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, before allowing the plane to fly on to Vilnius in neighboring Lithuania. According to the airline, the pilots were told there was “a potential security threat on board,” although of course no bomb was found.

The flight was in Belarusian airspace en route from Athens to Vilnius. Belarus’s official news agency credits Lukashenko personally with the decision to receive the plane at Minsk and to send a fighter jet to escort it, although it presents this as a good news story of Belarus promoting airline safety – with, unsurprisingly, no mention of Protesevich. The latter’s news service, NEXTA, claims that the Belarusians threatened to shoot the plane down if it did not comply.

To put it mildly, this is the sort of thing that civilised countries simply do not do. A very clear red line has been crossed, as the comments from European authorities indicate. European Union prime minister Ursula von der Leyen referred to “outrageous and illegal behaviour”; Poland’s prime minister called it “an unprecedented act of state terrorism.” Lithuania’s president called for immediate steps to counter “the threat posed to international civil aviation.”

Aircraft hijacking, sometimes more evocatively called air piracy, is a serious crime under both international and domestic law. The 1970 Convention for the suppression of unlawful seizure of aircraft, as amended by the 2010 protocol, defines the offence as being committed by any person who “unlawfully and intentionally seizes or exercises control of an aircraft in service by force or threat thereof, or by coercion, or by any other form of intimidation, or by any technological means” – which would surely seem to cover Belarus’s actions.*

Civilian aviation as we know it, already battered by the pandemic, could not continue to exist if countries felt free to force down scheduled flights passing over their territory and abduct their passengers. Even if their instincts were to shy away from controversy in Belarus, this is something that other countries cannot possibly ignore. Lukashenko may find that he has bitten off more than he can comfortably chew.

Most obviously, it is a test for Putin. His relationship with international law has sometimes been a difficult one, but Russia as a major world power nonetheless has an interest in the system continuing to function. If he does not disown Lukashenko or somehow bring him into order, questions will be asked about how safe Russian airspace is and whether Russian aircraft should continue to enjoy landing rights in the EU and elsewhere.

Autocrats, almost by definition, tend to be control freaks. Even when things are going well for them, their instinct is to tighten the screws further, and it’s that very over-reach that sometimes brings them undone: that’s just what happened to Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych back in 2014. It’s a lesson that Lukashenko does not appear to have learned.

* In the original version of the Convention the offence had to be committed by a person who was on board the aircraft; the extension made in the 2010 protocol entered into force in 2018. Belarus has ratified the Convention but apparently not the protocol.

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