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Journalist Roman Pratasevich in a defendant's cage in Minsk during a court hearing in 2017.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been the authoritarian leader of Belarus for decades, is no stranger to international censure.

The 66-year-old former collective farm manager faces isolation and sanctions because of his government's brutal, and sometimes deadly, crackdown on pro-democracy opponents after an election last August that was widely believed to be fraudulent extended his rule for another five years.

More than 33,000 people have been detained, thousands beaten or tortured, and journalists targeted in the government's crackdown that appears to have intensified in recent months even as large-scale demonstrations have vanished amid growing fear and fatigue. Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, seen by many as the rightful winner of the election, left for Lithuania after the vote amid threats to herself and her family.

On May 23, Lukashenka appeared to up the stakes further, taking his hunt for opponents to unprecedented heights -- literally -- as his government scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a civilian aircraft to land in Minsk. Authorities then detained Raman Pratasevich, co-founder and a former editor of the Nexta channel.

Belarusian Journalist Seized After Ryanair Jet 'Forcibly' Diverted To Minsk
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Much of the international community reacted with shock and fury to the news of the forced landing of the Ryanair plane on a scheduled flight from Athens to Vilnius.

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU's executive European Commission, said Pratasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for "the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned," adding EU leaders meeting in Brussels on May 24 would discuss what action to take.

As European officials threatened new sanctions against Belarus, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the forced landing and arrest a "shocking act," demanded Pratasevich's immediate release, and said President Joe Biden's administration was "coordinating with our partners on next steps."

Lukashenka Miscalculates?

Given an EU-based airline was involved, Lukashenka may have underestimated the West's possible reaction, explained Valer Karbalevich, a Belarusian political analyst based in Minsk.

"Before now, the regime has operated on its territory. For politicians in the West, it was a humanitarian question, a question of human rights. Now, after the incident with the airplane, it becomes a question of international security," Karbalevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

"This is a huge scandal. Western politicians view the situation unambiguously that a civilian plane was forced to land in Minsk with the use of military force," Karbalevich added.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

Lukashenka appears to have put a "higher priority on suppressing dissent within his own country than on a working relationship" with the West, explained Keir Giles, a consulting fellow at London's Chatham House with a focus on security issues in the former Soviet area.

"This means he may feel domestic political opposition is a bigger threat to control of the country than it appeared -- or that Belarus sees no downside in returning to the status of a pariah, that it sees no value or hope in being at peace with the West," Giles explained to RFE/RL in emailed comments.

For Lukashenka, the opportunity to nab Pratasevich was too tempting to resist, offered Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian analyst based in Sweden.

Until last November, the 26-year-old journalist worked for the Polish-based online Nexta news service, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Lukashenka last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to cover the events.

Pratasevich who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organizing mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.

"For Lukashenka, according to his line of reasoning, Telegram channels are to blame for 'organizing revolution.' Finding a way to arrest the editor of one of those channels proved a temptation Lukashenka couldn't resist," Rudnik told RFE/RL in emailed comments.

According to pro-government media in Belarus, Lukashenka himself ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to be scrambled to intercept the Ryanair jet because of the purported bomb scare. No bomb was found on the plane.

Data from Flightradar24.com showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the ground, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.

"The Belarusian authorities are expanding their operation beyond the borders of the country. 'Coup plotters' were detained in Moscow; a plane belonging to an Irish company is forced to land in Minsk," said Karbalevich, referring to the April arrests in Moscow of Yuras Zyankovich, a Belarusian-born lawyer who also holds U.S. citizenship, and Alyaksandr Fyaduta, who served as Lukashenka's spokesman in the 1990s.

The arrests were part of a bizarre claim that an assassination attempt was being prepared against Lukashenka and his two sons, as well as a military coup, to be carried out by a "group of foreign security services, probably the CIA and the FBI" and approved "by the top political leadership" in the United States. Washington quickly denied what it called "absurd" allegations.

Meaningful Action?

The European Union has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarus, imposing asset freezes and visa bans on 88 individuals and seven entities, including Lukashenka himself. And even before the Ryanair incident, the bloc had been working on a fourth round targeting more senior officials.

Washington's response has largely mirrored that of Brussels. In its latest action on April 19, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it was revoking a license that had allowed transactions with nine sanctioned state-owned companies in Belarus since 2015, including the oil company Belneftekhim, which accounts for 30 percent of Belarus's industrial output.

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez issued a statement with the heads of seven European parliamentary foreign affairs panels denouncing the forced landing as "an act of piracy."

They called for a ban on all overflights of Belarus, including to and from the country, and for NATO and EU states to impose sanctions and suspend Belarus's "ability to use Interpol."

An EU declaration, signed by all 27 members, noted that "the EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible."

RFE/RL European correspondent Rikard Jozwiak reported there is also talk of banning Belavia, the state-owned Belarusian national airline, from landing at EU airports and barring all flights of EU airlines from entering Belarusian airspace.

Air Baltic has already announced it is suspending flights over Belarusian airspace over safety concerns, meaning a loss of overflight fees for the cash-strapped Lukashenka government.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), however, only said it had raised "awareness of the situation" with European national aviation authorities.

"The national authorities were recommended to pass this information on to their airlines for inclusion in each airline's own risk assessment process," the EASA said in a statement shared with RFE/RL.

Failure by the West to act, Giles cautioned, could send a worrying signal to other authoritarian regimes.

"Lukashenka may be counting on the EU's reliable pattern of statements of concern not being followed up with meaningful action," Giles said. "This would be disastrous, as it would set a precedent for authoritarian regimes around the world to act against airliners overflying their territory. Air travel would become immeasurably more hazardous, including on the hundreds of routes that cross Russia and China on their way from Europe and North America to Asia."

Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich at a court hearing in Minsk in 2017.

After a passenger jet travelling between two European Union capitals was forced to land in Minsk and a Belarusian journalist was arrested on the tarmac, observers are wondering whether Moscow approved what one Western official called an "act of state terrorism" -- or even made it happen.

Raman Pratasevich was detained on May 23 after Belarusian authorities scrambled a warplane to escort the Vilnius-bound Ryanair plane to Minsk, a move widely denounced in the EU and the United States as a hijacking.

The dramatic development is stoking already substantial Western anger at Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the strongman who claimed victory in an August 2020 election opponents say was rigged to extend his harsh rule of just over 26 years, setting off protests that he has met with a violent and persistent crackdown.

Does it play into Russian President Vladimir Putin's hands, or set up a new complication that could hamper efforts to reach his foreign policy goals? And if the Kremlin thinks it could be a boon for Moscow, is it possible that Russia was behind it.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, a staunch Kremlin opponent who is seeking to run in parliamentary elections in September, certainly thinks so.

"It looks like this was a joint operation by the FSB and the Belarusian KGB," Yashin wrote on Twitter on May 24, referring to the main security agencies of the two closely linked neighbors. "If so, it's a disgrace for our country."

Belarusian Journalist Seized After Ryanair Jet 'Forcibly' Diverted To Minsk
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Yashin based his suspicions in part on reports that the passengers on the flight from Athens included four Russian citizens who did not reboard and fly on to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, after the hourslong stop in Minsk. Those reports have sparked speculation that the Russians could have been security agents involved in the operation to deliver Pratasevich to the Belarusian authorities.

Russia's Ready Response

Another catalyst for suspicion was the Russian response: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the incident, saying little more than that "international air travel authorities” should assess whether existing standards were followed.

But in a swift response that observers said seemed closely coordinated, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and others in the Kremlin orbit drew parallels with an incident in 2013, when a flight from Moscow carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales was diverted to Austria after reports that fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden might be on board.

Critics of the Kremlin just as swiftly dismissed the suggestion that the 2013 incident justified the interception of the passenger jet carrying Pratasevich and more than 100 other people on a flight between two EU countries. But if Russia did initiate or accede to the action by the Belarusian state, one potential motive might have been to set a precedent for similar moves by Moscow in the future.

Analysts at the German Council on Foreign Relations believe that Putin's Russia could have been "testing a new method of 'rogue' action, using Belarus as a testing ground," Milan Nic, a senior fellow at the Berlin-based think tank, wrote on Twitter, citing an exchange between experts there.

That possibility could be a particularly strong source of concern for Russian opponents of Putin's government, including members of jailed Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny's organizations, which appear likely to be branded "extremist" in the near future.

Pratasevich, 26, was a key administrator of the Telegram channel NEXTA Live, which has been covering the protests that broke out in Belarus following the disputed August election. He and colleague Stsyapan Putsila fled Belarus late last year, fearing prosecution after a Minsk court labeled the channel and its logo extremist.

In November 2020, Minsk launched investigations into Pratasevich and Putsila on suspicion of organizing mass disorder, disrupting social order, and inciting social hatred -- similar to the accusations that Russian authorities have made, without evidence, against Navalny and his organizations.

On Twitter, Nic indicated that experts at the independent research institute believe that because the Russian and Belarusian air defense systems are integrated, the passenger jet carrying Pratasevich could not have been diverted as it was without Moscow's approval.

Father Of Journalist Detained In 'Air Piracy' Incident Says Belarus Must Have Had Outside Help
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Regardless of whether it could have done so on its own, "Belarus would not have hijacked an EU plane without Russian approval," Timothy Snyder, a U.S. historian and author of several books focusing on the region that includes Belarus, wrote on Twitter, adding: "Possibly the hijacking was even a Russian initiative."

Snyder suggested that Moscow's aim would be to force Belarus into an even tighter embrace with Russia by increasing its isolation from the West.

"The Russian play would be: foreseeable EU sanctions on Belarus drive Minsk closer to Moscow," he wrote.

'Kadyrov Of The West'

Putin has been seeking to integrate Belarus more closely with Russia for almost two decades and has seemed to step up the effort in the past few years. Lukashenka has long resisted moves that could compromise Belarusian sovereignty but the post-election crackdown on protests has pushed Minsk closer to Moscow by raising the ire of the West, upsetting his balancing act.

The incident could also be useful for the Kremlin as a way to try to suggest to the West that Russia's persecution of government opponents is child's play compared to the clampdown by Lukashenka, who years ago was dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by some U.S. officials.

Still, other observers believe that the Kremlin may not be happy about the drama that unfolded over Belarus on May 23, suggesting that it complicates Moscow's diplomatic efforts at a delicate time as Russia and the United States prepare for a possible summit between Putin and President Joe Biden in June.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russia may have more influence over Belarus than it did in the past, but the dependence is a two-way street to some extent: By supporting Lukashenka in the face of street protests and Western criticism, Putin has hitched his wagon to the Lukashenka for the time being, at least.

"I doubt [the] Kremlin is excited about Lukashenka now. Putin has a stressful summit with Biden coming up," Anton Barbashin, editorial director at Riddle Russia, a platform for analysis on Russia, wrote on Twitter.

"But due to the nature of the [Russia-Belarus] relationship Putin has to back up Minsk," Barbashin wrote, referring to Lukashenka as a "Kadyrov of the West" -- a reference to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed head of Russia's Chechnya region.

Kadyrov runs Chechnya like his own fiefdom, frequently flouting Russian law, and stands accused of countless egregious human rights abuses by activists and opponents.

'I Will Destroy You': Chechen Leader Threatens Kid On Instagram
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Critics of the Kremlin say that he should be an embarrassment to Putin, because his actions undermine efforts to cast the Russian president as the strong leader of a law-based country.

But analysts say Putin turns a blind eye to Kadyrov's conduct, because the Kremlin relies on him to keep order and control separatist sentiment and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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