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EU sanctions Belarus for arresting journalist in Ryanair ‘hijacking’

The government of Belarus on Sunday forced an international civilian plane flying over its airspace to land to arrest a passenger, a dissident Belorussian blogger. The move was widely condemned in the United States and in Europe. Nick Schifrin reports on the forced landing and its fallout with Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the European Union slapped sanctions on Belarus, one day after Belarusian authorities ordered what European leaders call a state-sponsored hijacking.

    Yesterday, a civilian airliner was forced to land in Minsk, so authorities could arrest a journalist who had been critical of the regime. It's being called the biggest political crisis for global aviation in years.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When Ryanair 4978 was forced to land in Minsk, authorities didn't only remove the luggage. They also arrested 26-year-old Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich. He ran an online news service that helped organize mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, known as Europe's last dictator, who's been in power one year longer than Protasevich been alive.

    Tonight, Belarusian authorities released a video of Protasevich giving what appeared to be a scripted confession to organizing the protests. But, today, Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary blamed the Belarusian government and said four Belarusian security agents were on board to ensure the hijacking succeeded.

  • Michael O’Leary:

    I think it's the first time it's happened to a European airline, but, I mean, this was a case of state-sponsored — it was a state-sponsored hijack.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The flight path shows the plane flying in a straight line to intended destination Lithuania, when it did a U-turn, landing instead in Minsk.

    State media said Lukashenko ordered a fighter jet to escort the plane to Belarus' capital. A bomb squad official in a balaclava explained how there might have been an explosive on board.

    But European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen dismissed that claim, and accused the government of outrageous and illegal behavior and a hijacking. And, today, at a E.U. summit, leaders Belarusian airlines from flying over E.U. countries or using E.U. airports.

    Lukashenko's been fighting for his political life since he arrested leading opposition figures last year ahead of what the international community called a stolen election. His regime arrested many protest leaders and reporters who covered the uprising, but the Ryanair incident is unprecedented.

  • Gulnoza Saids:

    We just realized, I think, not just as the Committee to Protect Journalists, but a lot of Belarusian watchers realized how far Lukashenko can go.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gulnoza Said is the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Protasevich founded the Nexta forum on the Telegram app. It shares user-generated content from protests, with millions of subscribers, and helped demonstrators avoid state censorship.

  • Gulnoza Said:

    The free and live information and videos also that were being distributed on Nexta became very, very important for Belarusians, as the authorities were trying to close down or to control other media outlets who were providing the same sort of information.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she feared for Protasevich's safety.

  • Gulnoza Said:

    He could be interrogated by KGB. He may be tortured now as an enemy of Lukashenko. We are dealing with the harshest regime in Europe in decades.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on all of this, we turn to Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

    Matthew Rojansky, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Why would the Lukashenko regime consider a Roman Protasevich such a threat?

  • Matt Rojansky:

    A few reasons.

    First of all, Protasevich has been in exile. He has had a suspended sentence or sentence in absentia of 12 years for alleged terrorism against him for some time. So, this is not new.

    But in the last several months, in the aftermath of the stolen August presidential election, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of people coming out of the streets of Minsk, the Telegram channel, the news service Nexta, which Protasevich co-founded and has been instrumental in reporting on what's actually happening in Belarus, this has been viewed as a national security threat, a threat to the regime by the Lukashenko government in Minsk.

    And so the opportunity to snag this political opponent clearly was too tempting for them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the verb snag is pretty much what the Europeans have called it today.

    And, tonight, we have seen the European Union announced new sanctions, including a ban on Belarusian airlines flying over E.U. countries and the use of Belarusian airlines in E.U. airports.

    What's the implication of that? And how effective is it likely to be?

  • Matt Rojansky:

    Well, it's interesting in a couple of respects.

    One, it is proportionate, in the sense that it's responding in terms of commercial air travel, which is where the violation was done. It's a violation of basic principles of commercial air travel, freedom of navigation, et cetera, that this plane was downed under false pretenses for political reasons. And the E.U. is responding in that dimension.

    Second, it's effectively isolating Belarus, because this is a landlocked country, surrounded by E.U. members and Ukraine, which of course, is likely, I think, to go with the E.U. on this and then only has an Eastern border with Russia. And so this in effect doubles down on the political position that Lukashenko was in after his crackdown, which was to become wholly dependent on Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

    Now, in terms of literal physical access to the outside world, via the Belarusian national air carrier, Belarus is in that position of total dependency on Russia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You describe how this further isolates Belarus, but what leverage do the Europeans, do the Americans have to actually get Lukashenko to change his behavior?

  • Matt Rojansky:

    The dilemma of Lukashenko's current position for the West is that he has chosen sides.

    When Lukashenko was bouncing back and forth between currying favor in the West, currying favor in Moscow, playing one against the other, one could have argued that limited pressure could achieve limited ends. For example, a certain amount of economic sanctions pressure, a certain amount of diplomatic pressure, naming and shaming was able to get prisoners, political prisoners, released.

    At this point, having signed up essentially fully for Vladimir Putin's protection and abandoned any pretense of good relations with the West, it's hard to see how that kind of leverage is likely to be successful.

    Now, that said, give it a little bit of time, because I don't think Putin and Lukashenko view one another as reliable partners. They have had 20 years to work through that relationship, and they have never reached that point. So, it is likely that, in a few years, when there's a falling out, and there's a reason for Lukashenko to change course again, he will seek to curry favor in the West by releasing these political prisoners, and including perhaps Protasevich, who's got this 12-year sentence hanging over his head.

    So there's there's good reason for the West to impose those sanctions as leverage, but I would not expect quick success.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You and I have talked about authoritarianism increasing across the world, not only in Minsk.

    I wonder, has this kind of thing, this hijacking, as the Europeans have put it, ever happened before? And what message does it send to the rest of the world if the Belarusian government believes that it succeeded?

  • Matt Rojansky:

    This is being described across the board as unprecedented, or, frankly, if there's a precedent for it, it's a hijacking by a state. It is a state-sponsored act of terrorism.

    The Russians, of course, are backing Lukashenko. They're claiming that this sort of thing has been done by the West. There was a case in 2013. Evo Morales was leaving Russia. And no European country would refuel his aircraft, so he was forced down.

    I don't see a direct comparison there. I mean, this is an attempt to actually grab, to snatch out of midair someone who's viewed as an enemy of the regime. It really is an act of terrorism.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, therefore, could we see it repeated by other countries, perhaps even by Moscow, which, to no surprise, has backed this effort?

  • Matt Rojansky:

    I think the Russians view their territory in terms of absolute sovereignty.

    At this point, although they certainly take part in international civilian air travel agreements, if they have reason enough to try to grab someone or target someone who's on an aircraft — think Alexei Navalny — they poisoned him intentionally just before he got on a civilian airliner.

    I think the Russians view their airspace as totally up for grabs, fair game for their political warfare against the opposition.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Matt Rojansky of the Wilson Center, thank you very much.

  • Matt Rojansky:

    Thank you.

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