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EU imposes new sanctions on Belarus. A similar interference in civilian aviation by several EU and/or NATO states in 2013 remains without consequences.

BERLIN/MINSK (Own report) - The EU is imposing new sanctions on Belarus in response to the forced stopover in Minsk of a Ryanair flight and the subsequent arrest of a Belarusian exiled opposition activist. The sanctions include banning Belarusian airlines from using EU airspace and additional economic sanctions. The reactions are in blatant contrast to those following a similar incident in July 2013, when several EU states suddenly closed their airspace to the plane carrying Bolivia's President Evo Morales, forcing it to land in Vienna, where the plane was inspected in violation of international norms. In this case, the United States had assumed that whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board and had planned to have him arrested during the forced stopover. The plan failed only because Snowden had remained in Russia. Berlin and the EU had voiced no protest. The current reactions can be explained by the fact that the Minsk action plunged the entire western-patronized Belarusian opposition in exile into disarray.

"State Hijacking"

Already on Sunday, immediately after the Ryanair flight was forced down in Minsk and the Belarusian opposition activist Roman Pratasevich, who had been on board, was arrested, politicians in Germany, the EU and the USA condemned in the strongest possible terms the Belarusian action. It is "utterly unacceptable to force Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared.[1] German Finance Minister, and Vice Chancellor, Olaf Scholz was quoted demanding that the EU "take consequential action against the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko and his regime." Also on Sunday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced there should be "clear consequences on the part of the European Union."[2] Chancellor candidate for Germany's Green Party Annalena Baerbock called the forced landing "a state hijacking of a passenger pane," while Lithuanian authorities announced investigations into a hijacking and the Greek foreign ministry condemned "state air piracy."[3] US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced coordinated action with US allies in Europe and demanded "an international investigation."

Forced Stopover

This incident is by no means without precedent. A similar incident occurred in the night of July 2 - 3, 2013 with the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, while he was on his return trip from a conference in Moscow. Whistleblower Edward Snowden, who the United States was trying to get its hands on at almost all costs, had just arrived in Moscow. In Intelligence circles - erroneous - rumors were in circulation, Morales may have taken Snowden on board to grant him asylum in Bolivia. After the Bolivian presidential plane had taken off from Moscow, in a blitz operation, NATO members France, Italy, Spain and Portugal closed their airspace to that plane– obviously under pressure from Washington. Morales was forced to make a stopover in Vienna. The inspection of the plane proved Snowden was not on board.[4] Only then was the Bolivian President allowed to continue his flight home. Had the US whistleblower been onboard, he - in all probability - would have been arrested, just like the Belarusian opposition activist Roman Pratasevich, in the current case.

"Legally impeccable"

The previous incident demonstrates, not only, the willingness in principle, of western states to force foreign aircraft to land for the purpose of arresting their opponents. Even worse, is the fact the that Morales' aircraft was a presidential plane and according to international norms, these aircraft enjoy diplomatic immunity.[5] To avoid an even greater diplomatic scandal, it was possible through difficult negotiations, to declare the coerced Vienna stopover to have been for a "voluntary inspection."[6] At the time, the West was not talking of an act of "piracy," referring to those countries involved - all of them NATO and/or EU members. The governments of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, soon thereafter went on record expressing their "regrets" for the incident - mere inconsequential pleas for forgiveness addressed to the Bolivian authorities. Commentaries apologetically opined that "the hunt" for Snowden is producing "strange effects."[7] At best, the assault was "tactless, undiplomatic, embarrassing."[8] International jurists were quoted saying the sudden closure of the airspace to Morales' plane, forcing it to land in Vienna and enabling inspection was "legally ... impeccable." The EU Commission held the same standpoint.[9] There was never any talk of imposing sanctions.

Capital of the Exiled Opposition

In contrast to the previous case, the reaction in Berlin is not only so hefty because, this time, rather than western countries, it was Belarus that had forced the plane to land, but also because the assault had dealt a major blow to the Belarus opposition in exile. Roman Pratasevich, who was arrested Sunday in Minsk, had made himself a name as the co-editor-in-chief of the Nexta Telegram Channel, one of the main instruments of Belarus opposition propaganda. Pratasevich was on his way home from Greece, where he had accompanied the leader of the opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She had been invited by the foreign ministry in Athens to attend the "Delphi Forum," an economic forum frequented by numerous top politicians. Vilnius, the Ryanair flight's destination, is not only Tikhanovskaya's current residential address, but also "a sort of a capital of the Belarusian dissidents," according to their supporters. Lithuania is likewise "orchestrating" political activities of the Belarus opposition in exile.[10] German authorities are also promoting the protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, via Vilnius, from where the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation maintains close contacts to its "partners in Belarus."[11] However, in the aftermath of Pratasevich's arrest, there is growing insecurity in Vilnius.[12]

New Sanctions

The EU and its member states are massively increasing pressure on Belarus. Yesterday, Monday, several airlines from EU countries, including the Netherlands' KLM and Germany's Lufthansa, announced they would be shunning the Belarus airspace in the future. The British government joined the action announcing that British airline companies should also avoid transiting Belarus airspace in the future. Yesterday evening, the EU heads of states and governments called on all airlines companies in the Union to follow suit, and, in addition, Belarus airliners are being banned from using airports in the EU and being refused transit through the airspace of EU member countries. This blocks all Belarus flights westward. Additional sanctions will be imposed on individuals and enterprises, and the investments the EU had earmarked for Belarus will be put on hold.[13] Details pertaining to the newly planned "targeted economic sanctions" have not yet been announced.


[1] "Eine dreiste und schockierende Tat des Lukaschenko-Regimes". sueddeutsche.de 23.05.2021.

[2] Außenminister Maas zur erzwungenen Zwischenlandung des Ryanair-Flugs in Minsk. Pressemitteilung des Auswärtigen Amts. Berlin, 23.05.2021.

[3] "Eine dreiste und schockierende Tat des Lukaschenko-Regimes". sueddeutsche.de 23.05.2021.

[4] Ruth Eisenreich: Flugzeug von Morales auf Kanaren gelandet. tagesspiegel.de 03.07.2013.

[5] Latin American nations voice concerns to Ban over rerouting of Bolivian leader's plane. news.un.org 09.07.2013.

[6] Bolivien: Österreich hat Morales "gekidnapped". diepresse.com 03.07.2013.

[7] Michaela Seiser: Unfreiwilliger Staatsbesuch. faz.net 03.07.2013.

[8] Johannes Kuhn: Taktlos, undiplomatisch, peinlich. sueddeutsche.de 03.07.2013.

[9] Claus Hecking: Juristen geben Überflug-Verweigerern recht. spiegel.de 03.07.2013.

[10] BNN analyses: Lithuania is playing first fiddle in Belarus freedom case abroad. bbn-news.com 20.08.2020.

[11] See also The Battle over Minsk.

[12] André Ballin: Verhaftung Protassewitschs zeigt Hilflosigkeit der Opposition auf. derstandard.at 24.05.2021.

[13] EU sperrt Luftraum für weißrussische Flieger und stoppt Investitionen. derstandard.at 24.05.2021.