Even when our most basic civilizational values are in dispute, there are a few sets of rules and regulations that we nevertheless manage to share. The laws of the sea, for example, or the norms governing the conduct of air-traffic controllers. Pilots of any nationality, even when flying to Caracas, Havana, or Pyongyang, have no reason to believe that the instructions they receive from the ground are political or deceitful, or meant to achieve any purpose other than a safe landing.
Now the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has shattered that basic assumption in a stunt with no exact precedent. Yesterday, aviation authorities there collaborated in the hijacking of a Ryanair plane that was crossing through Belarusian airspace en route from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania. Belarusian air-traffic control falsely told the pilots that the plane had a bomb on board. According to Belarusian state media, the plane was then “escorted” to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, by a MiG fighter jet.
In reality, there was no bomb, the threat was fake, and Minsk was not even the closest airport; after the plane landed, nobody rushed to get the passengers to safety. The real point of the exercise became clear after two passengers were removed. One of them was Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian opposition blogger and journalist. The other was his girlfriend, Sofya Sapega. Protasevich was one of the original editors of Nexta, a Telegram blogging channel that became one of the most important sources of public information during mass anti-regime demonstrations that took place in Minsk last summer. Protasevich fled the country in 2019 and has been living in exile ever since. In absentia, the Belarusian state had declared him a “terrorist.” While he was being taken away, he told one of the other passengers, “I am facing the death penalty.” Certainly, a prison sentence in Belarus can include Soviet-style interrogations, isolation, and torture.
[Anne Applebaum: The 22-year-old blogger behind protests in Belarus]
Some of the details remain unclear. Ryanair maintained a bizarre, stony silence in the hours after the hijacking, issuing a statement of such blandness that it could have been referring to routine maintenance problems. Only this morning did the Irish discount airline’s CEO call the incident “state-sponsored hijacking.” But what happened is not in doubt. The Belarusian regime abused air-traffic-control procedures that are designed to inform pilots about genuine emergencies in order to kidnap a dissident. In other words, this is a story that belongs alongside the Russian use of radioactive poisons and nerve agents against enemies of the Kremlin in London and Salisbury, England; Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of one of its citizens inside a consulate in Istanbul; Iranian assassinations of dissidents in the Netherlands and Turkey; and Beijing’s kidnapping and detention of Chinese nationals living abroad and foreign citizens of Chinese origin. The human-rights organization Freedom House calls these new practices “transnational repression,” and has compiled more than 600 examples.
All of these cases form part of what is becoming a new norm: Authoritarian states in pursuit of their enemies no longer feel the need to respect passports, borders, diplomatic customs, or—now—the rules of air-traffic control. In this new world, dictators are ever more prepared to arrest or murder political dissidents anywhere, no matter what citizenship they might have or which foreign laws or bureaucratic procedures might theoretically protect them. Sometimes these regimes put pressure on other countries to help them. Other times they kidnap people unassisted. The price they have to pay as a result, in sanctions or in bad relations with the outside world, clearly no longer bothers them.
This particular incident is notable because, unlike the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China, Lukashenko has so few levers of influence abroad. Belarus has little trading clout, no important investments in New York or London, no oligarchs who own British soccer teams and help normalize the dictator’s rule overseas. That Lukashenko is now willing to falsely detain and possibly endanger a European-owned, European-registered airplane carrying mostly European Union citizens from one EU nation to another means that he is prepared for a total break with Europe—and that he is completely confident of Russian economic and political support when it happens. Already, the head of RT, the Russian state-sponsored international television channel, has tweeted that the hijacking makes her “envy” Belarus. Lukashenko, she wrote, “performed beautifully.” Another senior Russian official called the hijacking “feasible and necessary.” But that isn’t surprising: Autocrats supporting other autocrats who break international law is one more element of the new norm.
[From the November 2020 issue: Last exit from autocracy]
In the hours following the incident, a huge range of Western leaders also reacted on social media. The secretary-general of NATO, the president of the European Commission, and the U.S. secretary of state were among those who condemned the hijacking. The prime minister of Lithuania went to meet the plane when it finally landed in Vilnius, many hours behind schedule. Latvia has already expelled the Belarus ambassador; Britain has already banned the Belarus national airline. In the next few days, more repercussions will be coordinated, possibly including new economic sanctions on Belarus, or the suspension of flights to the country. Another strange incident today also served to remind Europeans that Belarus is not just a lawless, dangerous place, but a lawless, dangerous place right on the EU’s border: A Lufthansa plane due to fly to Frankfurt from Minsk was delayed, again because of alleged bomb threats. Some observers feared that the passengers would become hostages. Just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine eventually caused a backlash on the rest of the continent, the human-rights catastrophe in Belarus will inevitably affect other Europeans.
And not only Europeans: In autocratic capitals all over the world, dictators and their flunkies are also watching to see how the West reacts—whether Lukashenko gets away with it and whether, perhaps, this new tool of oppression will become available to them too. Invariably, others will seek to use it, if only because it sends a message to their dissident and exile communities: You are not safe. You are never safe. Not even if you live in a democracy; not even if you have political asylum; not even if you are sitting on a commercial plane, thousands of feet above the ground.