Make Lukashenka, Putin pay for plane hijacking

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

The Free World has reacted with outrage over Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s brazen act of air piracy in forcing an Irish airplane flying between Athens and Vilnius to land in Minsk just so his thugs could arrest a dissident journalist who had become a thorn in his side.

That is what happened on May 23 when Lukashenka sent a MIG fighter to intercept a Ryanair flight and escort it to Minsk (even though it was much closer to Vilnius at the time, as the adjoining map shows) under the claim that a bomb was aboard. That turned out to be a hoax. Just as soon as the hijacked plane landed in Minsk, Belarusian storm troopers arrested journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
Pratasevich is a co-founder and editor in chief of Nexta-Live, a Belarus-focused news channel that has become a trustworthy counterpoint to the propaganda disseminated by the official Belarusian agencies. During last year’s presidential election, it became the principal source of accurate political news in that country. When Lukashenka was declared the winner of a sixth straight term in office on August 20, 2020, protesters who believed the vote was stolen were ready — in part due to information provided by Nexta, whose use of the Telegram messaging platform allowed it to circumvent government efforts to restrict online information. As mass protests became a daily feature of life in Belarus, Nexta published times and places for demonstrators to meet, suggestions for countering and avoiding police, and instructions to keep the movement peaceful.

But while Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on democracy protestors was generally considered a domestic violation of human rights, the hijacking of a civilian passenger plane is a violation of international law.

As an immediate consequence, European leaders have ordered their national airlines to stop flying over Belarusian airspace and to ban Belarusian carriers from flying over EU airspace or using its airports. They are also expected to impose new sanctions upon Belarus.

How effective these sanctions will be remains to be seen. As we have noted in several previous editorials, the current sanctions have had little or no impact. That’s because they are primarily aimed at specific individuals. While that creates some inconveniences for Lukashenka and his cronies who can’t travel to the EU or North America and forces them to juggle their offshore bank accounts, it does little to weaken or diminish the power structure that is propping up the regime.

Again, as we have noted previously, what is really needed are sanctions that will target Lukashenka’s money supply, thus impairing his ability to pay his goon squads, many of which are now infiltrated by mercenaries from Russia. Lukashenka controls hundreds of private companies through a mechanism known as the Management of Presidential Affairs which supplies him with money, and it is these companies that should be targeted with boycotts. Sectoral sanctions are what’s needed and the specific sectors that should be targeted have been identified by Belarusian activists and political observers.

The principal industries that provide Lukashenka with his foreign reserves are refined petroleum products and potash fertilizer. Belarus is the world second largest producer with mine production of 7 million Metric Tons (MT) a year. The Belarusian Potash Company is the country’s largest industry operator. Since Russia’s Uralkali pulled out of that company in 2013, its former partner, state-owned Belaruskali, has had a rocky road to recovery. Belaruskali has six mines and four processing factories. Russia, incidentally, is the world’s number three producer. Canada is number one, so any boycott of Belarusian potash can only benefit Canadian producers.

But as long as we are targeting Belarusian potash, target Russian potash as well. In fact, increase sanctions on Russia, period. Russia has invaded Ukraine and occupied Ukrainian territory. It has violated the sovereignty of other neighbours as well, including Georgia. It has grossly violated the human rights of its citizens and carried out assassinations on the territory of past and present European Union members. And there is no doubt that Russia was complicit in the hijacking of Ryanair Flight 4978. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says he finds it “very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow.”

In a recent article for the Atlantic Council, Brian Whitmore notes that a confidential unpublished report by the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, which is known for having excellent sources in the Belarusian and Russian elites, suggested that Moscow’s involvement was likely quite extensive and active. According to the report: “It is obvious that Belarusian special services…do not have the resources to monitor the movements of even the leading opposition figures abroad, to conduct external surveillance abroad, and to coordinate the work of Belarusian services inside the country accordingly. Therefore, the involvement of Russian special services at all stages of the operation to apprehend Pratasevich is beyond doubt.”

The problem has always been that Western democracies are quite willing to impose personal sanctions on given individuals, but stop short of any tough sanctions that will also affect their own economies. A classic example is Germany’s determination to press ahead with Nord Stream 2 about which we commented in last week’s issue.

So, the question remains, are Western democracies finally ready to impose effective sanctions against the demonic duo of Putin and Lukashenka, or will it be business as usual after another round of token diplomatic protests and equally toothless sanctions. Let’s hope and pray that they finally decide to put world security and human rights ahead of their own economic interests.