A State-Sponsored Skyjacking Can’t Go Unanswered


Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has gone too far. Hijacking a commercial airliner to kidnap an opposition journalist is simply too dangerous a violation of international norms for the United States, the European Union and other responsible states to let pass without serious consequences.

A throwback to the regional bosses of the Soviet era, Mr. Lukashenko has become steadily more repressive and autocratic over his 27 years in power. With neighboring President Vladimir Putin of Russia as kindred spirit and protector, Mr. Lukashenko has consistently shrugged off criticism and sanctions from the West.

So when hundreds of thousands of Belarusians finally took to the streets after brazenly fraudulent elections in 2020, Mr. Lukashenko showed no hesitation in violently cracking down, and he has continued since to hound opposition leaders, journalists and demonstrators alike. He has sent as many as 35,000 people to prison and many into exile.VideoTRANSCRIPT0:00/11:17

Her Plan to Topple Europe’s Last Dictator

My husband was jailed for daring to run against our president, so I ran in his place.

“What would you do for love? The man I love was trying to topple a dictator. And then he went to jail for it. So I did what any loyal wife would do. I ran in his place. I have no interest in politics. My dream is just to be a good mother and a great wife. And now I’m leading a revolution against Europe’s last dictator.” [MUSIC PLAYING] ”(CHANTING) Sveta! Sveta!” [GUNFIRE] “My name is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. And I’m from Belarus. We are run by a dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. He’s oppressive tyrant who has been in power for 26 years.” Europe’s closest equivalent to North Korea. Accused of human rights abuses, stifling dissent, and running sham elections. “A lot of people who disagree with him just disappeared.” The president had ordered his assassination. DW News has spoken with a man who says that he was a member of the death squads. “When COVID came, he asked, ‘Do you see this COVID around? I don’t see it. So it doesn’t exist.’” Belarus has one of Europe’s highest per capita infection rates. “Thousands of people died because of it.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “Our president doesn’t respect his people at all. My husband went around the country just talking to usual people, asking how they were living.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “He was touched by ordinary people who didn’t have good conditions for working.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “And it became so important for him.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “He was showing all these videos on his YouTube channel, ‘A Country for Life.’ His subscribers started to ask him to run for presidency because he knew all the problems from inside.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “I was sitting at home with my children. And I was worrying about him. Authorities knew that he will be a serious opponent for Mr. Lukashenko. And he was jailed. So I collected documents for myself and brought these documents to Election Commission. At that moment, I didn’t think about country. Maybe it sounds wrong. But, at very that moment, I was thinking only about my husband, to support him. But I was sure that they know who I was. And they will never, never allow me to be registered. And it was great surprise when they did. I’m sure that they did this just to laugh at me. They were sure that people will never vote for a woman, for unknown person, for housewife. We went around Belarus. I’ve never talked to such amount of people. I was afraid that I will forget all the words. I understood how dangerous, in our country, to run for presidency because you’re like a bug in front of tractor.” Hundreds of opposition activists have reportedly been arrested, among them the president’s main challengers. “I understood that I’m not ready to lead the country because I’m not economist. I’m not a politician. So I promised that I will be president no more than half a year, just to organize new elections, that’s it.” [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “During all this election campaign, I had a lot of moments when I wanted to step away because I was frightened.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “I got telephone call from unknown person who told me that, if I continue to run this campaign, I will be jailed and my children will be put in orphanage. And the next city, it was Minsk. About 60,000 people came. And, at that very moment, I understood that I can’t step away.” ”(CHANTING) Sveta! Sveta! Sveta! Sveta! Sveta!” [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “So many people just came to show that they are with me. They are tired to live under pressure. They don’t want this dictator anymore. We had a lot of observers at every polling station. And we saw that the majority voted with me. Till the end, there was a tiny hope that they will count honestly. But it was so tiny that it just disappeared.” NARRATOR: [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “Official result was 80% for Mr. Lukashenko and 10% for me. He stole all the people’s voices. 100,000 of Belarusian people went out for peaceful demonstrations.” [GUNFIRE] “Police just was going around and beating and beated and beated all of them. People were just beaten so hard. Thousands have been imprisoned, beaten, and tortured.” NARRATOR: [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “This footage was recorded by a Belarusian journalist who was beaten on the streets and then became a patient in this hospital in Minsk. The ward is full of so many different people with the exact same injuries and very similar stories.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “And some of these patients were not even protesters. One patient was just going to buy vinegar at his local shop. Even worse, some protesters said they were raped.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “This is what Lukashenko does to his own people.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “After the elections, I had to leave Belarus.” Belarusian opposition leader has been filmed speaking under duress. Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country. “At that moment, I had to think about family, about husband. I was ready to step away because it was difficult to accept this violence. So I really was ready to give up. Only, Belarusian people didn’t give me chance to step away. I became like a symbol of freedom.” ”(CHANTING) Sveta! Sveta! Sveta!” “I started to meet with the leaders of different countries.” “Honorable members of the European Parliament—” “It is very important that people around the world are talking about us.” “We wish you all strength and persistence in the struggle for democracy.” “Authorities were sure that such violence will calm down people. But vice versa happened.” [? [CROWDS CHANTING] ?] – [CHANTING IN RUSSIAN] “There were people of different professions, of different ages.” – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] – [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “Old people, usually, is considered to be electorate of Mr. Lukashenko. But, at last, they understood. Even those people who were still apolitical— workers who work in factories, they are usually apolitical— they started strikes.” – [PROTESTING IN RUSSIAN] “It’s unbelievable for Belarus. I always considered myself to be a weak woman. But when my fate laughed at me, when it put me in such obstacles that I had to look for the strength, maybe this strength already was inside of me. You know, the same as me, I’m sure every person has strength in himself or herself. They just didn’t know they have this strength because we were so frightened by one person. But now they woke up. This revolution is not over. To the international community, we need new and fair elections. They can be run by the OSCE. And we need an investigation into the human rights abuses to my people who have been on the streets for weeks.” [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] “Our revolution is not geopolitical. It’s not a pro-Russian revolution nor [? pro-European-Union ?] revolution. It is a democratic revolution. And I want my husband back.” [MUSIC PLAYING]00:0011:1711:17Her Plan to Topple Europe’s Last DictatorMy husband was jailed for daring to run against our president, so I ran in his place.

Yet that didn’t silence online opposition. So on Sunday, Mr. Lukashenko hijacked a Ryanair jetliner flying over Belarus with 171 passengers aboard to kidnap one of his premier gadflies, Roman Protasevich. A 26-year-old journalist who was a co-founder and former editor of the Nexta channel on the social media platform Telegram — a popular place for Mr. Lukashenko’s many foes to organize protests and share information — Mr. Protasevich was living in exile in Lithuania.

Mr. Protasevich was flying from Athens to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, when, on the pretext of a bomb threat, Belarusian authorities ordered the plane to land in Minsk, Belarus’s capital — with a jet fighter dispatched to make sure it did. No bomb was found, of course, but the terrified journalist and his girlfriend were taken off the plane, and several passengers presumed to be K.G.B. agents (it’s still called that in Belarus) were not on board several hours later when the flight was allowed to leave.

The outcry from the E.U. and the United States over this act of transnational repression was swift and loud. “There will be a very strong answer because it is outrageous behavior and Lukashenko and his regime have to understand that this will have severe consequences,” declared Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. The U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, demanded the “immediate release” of Mr. Protasevich. The European Union banned E.U.-based flights over Belarusian territory and was working to ban Belarusian flights over the bloc. Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, called it “a case of state-sponsored hijacking.” Ireland, where Ryanair is based, and Lithuania, where the flight was headed, demanded stern reprisals.

Mr. Lukashenko was unfazed and on Monday went on with business as usual — signing laws further cracking down on dissent. Russia promptly came to Mr. Lukashenko’s defense, with a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman recalling that several years ago the United States pressured a plane carrying Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, to make an unscheduled stop in Vienna after European countries refused it permission to fly over their territory on suspicion that the whistle-blower Edward Snowden was on board.

That’s what about is, of course, but it is worth revisiting the facts. In 2013, Mr. Snowden had made his way to Moscow, where Mr. Morales went to attend an international conference. On the suspicion that Mr. Morales would grant Mr. Snowden asylum and had taken him aboard his flight home, the president’s plane was barred from flying over some European countries and forced to land in Austria. When officials determined that Mr. Snowden was not on board, Mr. Morales was allowed to continue.

The outcry, especially from Latin America, was fierce. Much of the criticism leveled at the Obama administration at the time was warranted. But there is a difference between denying overflight to a plane and forcing a commercial jetliner to land over a false alarm, accompanied by a warplane.

Mr. Lukashenko’s action, moreover, falls into the more worrisome pattern of autocrats prepared to throw international norms to the wind to get at their critics. The vicious attacks on the former Russian spies Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un are among the most notorious such actions.

Forcing down a jetliner may not be in the same category as extraterritorial assassination. But in asserting that overflights are fair game for his war on dissidents, Mr. Lukashenko has effectively extended his repressive ways into the realm of aviation hijacking. As Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, declared, this was an attack on “an Irish airline, a plane that’s registered in Poland, full of E.U. nationals, traveling between two E.U. capitals.”

Mr. Lukashenko has gone too far, and the response should be swift. But the episode also underscores a troubling reality: Autocrats looking to extend their repressive ways across international borders are increasingly emboldened to do so. Deterrence, in far too many instances, has failed.