Alexander Lukashenko's regime has gone on an unprecedented escalation of the conflict with Belarusian society and the West.
On May 18, the country's most popular Internet portal TUT.by was closed. In addition to the editorial office, journalists were also searched - 15 employees of the publication were arrested.
However, on Sunday, May 23, Lukashenko committed a direct act of state terrorism. A Belarusian fighter forced a Ryanair airline flight to Athens - Vilnius to land at Minsk airport. After the forced landing, Roman Protasevych, the founder and ex-editor of the opposition Telegram channel Nexta, was arrested.
The European Union will be forced to tighten sanctions against Lukashenko. This has already been announced by Poland and Lithuania. The United Kingdom has warned of "serious consequences". And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the situation "a dangerous incident that needs international investigation."
The foreign ministers of the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Poland, the United States, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom have signed a joint statement condemning the threat of violence against civilian aircraft. Lukashenko's actions were called an act of piracy on the route between the two NATO and EU countries.
Lithuanian police have already launched two investigations into the plane's landing in Minsk - in connection with the hijacking of the plane and in connection with the forced landing.
Such a sharp reaction significantly increases the likelihood of an urgent tightening of sanctions against Belarus.
But why did the self-proclaimed President Lukashenko go to such an aggravation? Especially in a situation when active protests in the country are suppressed and his government is not threatened in the short term?
The assessment of Lukashenko's next steps depends on the answer to this question.
Hunting for the opposition
"It looks like I was grazed by a geb (Belarusian KGB officer. - Ed.) At the airport ... The joke is that he was next in line to check the documents, but just turned around and left. Already in the gate. my phone tried to open my documents when I opened the electronic forms, "wrote Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian oppositionist, before the plane left.
It is obvious that the security forces (Belarusian or Russian) have been "leading" Protasevich for a long time. As soon as the Ryanair plane entered Belarusian airspace, Belarusian air traffic controllers began to demand an emergency landing, citing the information that there may be an explosive on board. Lukashenko personally gave the command to deploy the plane.
A MiG-29 fighter of the Belarusian Air Force, armed with air-to-air missiles, which actually took part in the hijacking of a passenger plane, was lifted into the sky. He forced the plane to turn around about 30 kilometers from the Lithuanian border.
After holding the plane and passengers for about five hours at Minsk airport, the plane was given the opportunity to continue its flight - it is expected that there were no explosives on board.
Instead, according to the Belarusian opposition, six passengers did not depart from Minsk: two Belarusians and four Russians. Among them is Roman Protasevych, who was arrested immediately after landing. There is also information about the arrest of his girlfriend.
In his homeland, Protasevich is threatened with articles that provide for imprisonment for up to 15 years. He is accused of committing "intentional actions aimed at violating social hostility on the grounds of professional affiliation."
However, he could face the death penalty if he is charged with terrorism. It will be recalled that Belarus remains the only country in Europe where the death penalty has not yet been abolished.
"When the guy found out we were going to board, he was upset. We were all taken off the plane, the dogs sniffed our belongings. This guy was taken aside, his belongings were thrown on the runway. We asked him what happened. He said who he added: "The death penalty is waiting for me here. He was already calmer, but he was trembling. An officer was standing next to him all the time, and soon the officers took him out," one of the passengers described the situation.
"Act of State Terrorism"
Forcing a transit aircraft to land with the support of a fighter is unprecedented. At least because the states guarantee unimpeded air transit through their airspace. Such a brutal violation of international norms has led to a sharp reaction from Western countries. Some world leaders are already calling such actions in Minsk state terrorism.
"I strongly condemn the detention of Roman Protasevych by the Belarusian authorities after the hijacking of a Ryanair passenger plane. It is an indecent act of state terrorism," wrote Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawecki. Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonite has similar assessments.
And the President of Lithuania Gitanas Nauseda called to discuss this situation on May 24 at the EU summit. "I call on NATO and the EU to respond immediately to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the regime in Belarus," he added.
Will the EU take decisive action in response?
The strongest answer will be the recognition of the Belarusian regime by terrorists. However, such a step still seems unlikely.
A more likely solution is to suspend air transit in Belarusian airspace, including flights to and from Belarus and flights for Belavia. ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, is already calling for such a decision.
The move would at least lead to further international isolation of Lukashenko and reduce funding opportunities for the criminal regime.
However, it is possible that even this step will be impossible for the EU - and the leaders of European countries will now limit themselves to another deep concern, postponing the issue of new sanctions.
"Crossbow" of Lukashenko
Lukashenko's actions have already aroused the admiration of many of Putin's "friends," including in Ukraine. In addition to the representatives of the OPZZ, the deputy from the "Servant of the People" Yevhen Shevchenko, who supports the work of the Belarusian KGB, also "excelled".
However, the question arises: why does the Belarusian dictator need it?
The likelihood that the EU will not limit itself to deep concerns and impose new sanctions is quite significant. Especially given such a flagrant disregard for international law by Minsk.
The new sanctions, not even the toughest, will only exacerbate the problems in the Belarusian economy - and this will increase Lukashenko's dependence on Russian financial subsidies.
At the same time, it is difficult to name strong arguments in favor of Roman Protasevych's detention in this way.
Telegram channel Nexta gained considerable popularity at the beginning of the Belarusian protests, but its influence declined along with the decline in the number of protests.
So why create new problems with the West in a situation when protests in the country are actually suppressed and in the near future the Lukashenko regime is not threatened?
After all, since last year, Lukashenko's opponents have never managed to hold large-scale street rallies. The Belarusian authorities managed to block the protests during Freedom Day on March 25, after which there were no mass actions of disobedience in the country.
The situation is similar with the recent closure of the TUT.by portal, which also provoked a sharp reaction from the West.
The status of the media in the portal was revoked last year - at the beginning of the protests. That is, the authorities could have closed this portal at any time, but did not do so. And this lack of reaction had its explanations.
TUT.by is not just the largest information portal in Belarus, it was read by almost half of the country's Internet users. It was an independent but not oppositional portal.
Accordingly, the closure of TUT.by will force its readers to move to other sites. And it is unlikely to be the pro-government media. Rather, these actions push the authorities to radicalize more.
With this step, Lukashenko is finally clearing the domestic political field and demonstrating to the people of Belarus: the protests have been suppressed, and now is the time to deal with all dissenters, we have long arms, we will get you anywhere.
Both the closure of TUT.by and the arrest of Protasevich have something in common: they have little effect on the situation inside the country, but create considerable international problems for Lukashenko.
And there can be at least two explanations for this.
One of the main secrets of the political longevity of the self-proclaimed president of Belarus is the ability to balance relations between the West and Russia.
The forced rapprochement with Russia after the next Western sanctions usually lasts for several years - after which Lukashenko began a gradual thawing of relations with the West, releasing political prisoners and somewhat liberalizing the regime.
This was the case last time - the sanctions imposed in 2010 were partially suspended in 2015. And this has constantly allowed Lukashenko to evade Putin's "embrace" and avoid deeper integration with Russia.
Such a strategy gave Belarusian political scientists reason to assume that in some time official Minsk would try to resume dialogue with the West. And although the crimes against its own population committed in the country after the 2020 elections significantly reduce the likelihood of a new warming with the West, it does not make it completely impossible - before Lukashenko even escaped the assassination of political opponents.
Based on this logic, Minsk's current actions are extremely beneficial to the Kremlin in the first place, because they further reduce the already insignificant field for Lukashenko's dialogue with the West, making it even more dependent on Russia.
In this case, the participation of Russian special services in the special operation around the Ryanair aircraft is really quite likely. As well as Russia's interest in further deterioration of Minsk's relations with the West.
However, the version with direct Russian intervention does not explain other high-profile Belarusian events: the closure of TUT.by, the equating of national white-red-white symbols with Nazi ones, the adoption of a law that allows security forces to use weapons against protesters.
Therefore, another explanation seems more likely.
The 2020 protests significantly affected the Lukashenko regime. If earlier there was a place for "system liberals", now they are finally replaced by security officers.
However, reliance solely on the security forces has its own characteristics.
Now the Belarusian regime is doomed to look for more and more new enemies - the security forces need to demonstrate their indispensability.
And although in the short term it allows you to keep the situation under control, but at the same time significantly reduces the days of the regime.
The political system built by Lukashenko is gradually transitioning to a mode of self-destruction.
Yuri Panchenko, editor of "European Truth",
Maria Avdeeva, European Expert Association, iSANS expert
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