Report

Belarus ‘Hijacking’ Opens New Playbook for Autocrats

Snatching a dissident off a European Union-flagged carrier headed to another EU country opens a dangerous door.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Protesters gather in Poland demanding Belarus free opposition activist Roman Protasevich.
Demonstrators carry signs supporting Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian activist detained aboard a Ryanair flight diverted by Belarusian authorities, in Warsaw, Poland on May 24. Wojtek Radwanski / AFP via Getty Images

Nine months after his native Belarus erupted in protests over rigged presidential elections, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich had just taken a vacation in Greece with his girlfriend. Protasevich is the founder and former editor of the Nexta channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which played a decisive role in coordinating protests last fall that drew hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets. 

Having lived in exile in Lithuania since 2019, like many Belarusian journalists, he was used to being harassed by the country’s formidable security services. On Sunday morning, as he prepared to board a flight from Athens to Vilnius, he texted colleagues that he was being tailed by a suspicious looking man who attempted to take pictures of his passport as he boarded the plane. 

Nine months after his native Belarus erupted in protests over rigged presidential elections, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich had just taken a vacation in Greece with his girlfriend. Protasevich is the founder and former editor of the Nexta channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which played a decisive role in coordinating protests last fall that drew hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets. 

Having lived in exile in Lithuania since 2019, like many Belarusian journalists, he was used to being harassed by the country’s formidable security services. On Sunday morning, as he prepared to board a flight from Athens to Vilnius, he texted colleagues that he was being tailed by a suspicious looking man who attempted to take pictures of his passport as he boarded the plane. 

“We receive death threats at least a dozen times a day so we’re pretty much used to it,” said Tadeusz Giczan, the editor in chief of Nexta.

As the flight made its way north through Belarusian airspace, authorities in the country appear to have called in a bogus bomb threat and scrambled a fighter jet to divert the Ryanair flight to the capital of Belarus, Minsk. It was a brazen attack of air piracy to arrest Protasevich, who was added to the country’s terrorist watchlist last year because of his opposition activities, and who could now face the death penalty if he is convicted of crimes of terrorism.

“We didn’t think something like this could actually happen. Turns out we were wrong,” Giczan said. 

The brazen decision to snatch a journalist out of the sky was swiftly condemned by U.S. and European officials as a “hijacking” and an act of air piracy that shattered international norms. Many now fear that, absent a robust response, it could set a terrifying precedent for rogue states to waylay airliners in pursuit of their opponents. 

Others see it as a key test case for whether the European Union can stand up for the security of its own citizens. “[W]hat happened yesterday is even more serious than what you describe,” Nathalie Loiseau, a member of European Parliament and former French minister for European affairs, tweeted to President of the European Council Charles Michel. “It’s a litmus test for EU’s ability to be respected. Please make sure EU leaders don’t fail the test this time,” she added. 

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, issued a joint statement with senior European lawmakers calling for immediate reprisals, including new sanctions on Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime, banning Belarus from the International Civil Aviation Organization, and a “ban on all overflight of Belarus including flights to and from the country.” 

“This act of state terror and kidnapping is a threat to all those who travel in Europe and beyond,” Menendez wrote in the joint statement with his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Latvia, Germany, Lithuania, Ireland, Poland, and the United Kingdom. 

European carriers including Wizz Air, AirBaltic, Scandinavian Airlines, and others announced on Monday that they would reroute flights to avoid Belarusian airspace; Britain’s transport secretary ordered British airlines to do the same. In a sign that the fallout for Lukashenko will go beyond the EU’s borders, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also ordered a halt on direct Ukrainian flights to and from Belarus.

On Monday, pro-government outlets released what appeared to be a highly scripted video of Protasevich in which he confessed to planning mass unrest in Minsk and claimed that he had not been mistreated by police. Protasevich’s family and colleagues fear he will be tortured in prison. 

A wave of unprecedented mass street protests that broke out across the country in response to rigged elections last August were met with blistering violence from the police and security services. Some 35,000 people have since been arrested as reports of systematic beatings and torture have emerged from the country’s prisons. Almost 400 political prisoners are currently behind bars. 

Journalists and opposition activists left Belarus in droves. Like Protasevich, many settled in the capital of neighboring Lithuania as well as in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Warsaw, Poland, which now feel uncomfortably close to Belarus’s borders. 

“No one can feel safe,” said Franak Viacorka, foreign affairs spokesperson for Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is also now based in Vilnius. Viacorka said that Tikhanovskaya, whose security is provided by the  Lithuanian government, had been warned that Belarus may try and ground flights to nab her, but that it had been considered a distant possibility. “No one believed that airspace could be the place of this political war,” he said. 

The audacious decision to ground a civilian airliner in pursuit of a dissident may be unprecedented, but Belarus’s extraterritorial pursuit of its opponents is not. A report published by Freedom House earlier this year documented 608 instances of people being physically targeted by authoritarian states overseas since 2014, including assassinations, abductions, assaults, detentions, and unlawful deportations. 

In August 2020, Rwandan officials abducted Paul Rusesabagina, who was the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda, in Dubai. A strident critic of the country’s president, he was taken back to Rwanda, where he was arrested and charged with terrorism in a move decried by international human rights organizations. 

Fifty-eight percent of the transnational repression instances documented in the Freedom House report involved bogus terrorism charges—as could be the case in Sunday’s hijacking—as authoritarian states seek to cloak their crackdowns in the guise of national security. 

It’s difficult to gauge whether such instances are on the rise, said Nate Schenkkan, director of research strategy at Freedom House, but he said two things may have emboldened despots to reach out in pursuit of their critics. The first is new technology, which has made it possible for exiles to broadcast their messages to audiences back home, but has also supercharged opportunities for state surveillance. The second is that they’ve been able to get away with it. 

“There’s really not been consistent and strong consequences for these activities,” Schenkkan said.

Human rights advocates were frustrated by the Biden administration’s decision not to impose penalties on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite intelligence assessments that he approved the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, in an apparent bid to preserve the United States’ working relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“In diplomacy, everyone is always watching everyone else. And perceptions of others are shaped by how one country or group of countries treats another,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus. 

It is unclear how sanctions alone could convince Lukashenko to release Protasevich; the Belarusian leader is already viewed as an international pariah, and Belarus’s autocratic, largely state-controlled economy is poorly integrated with the West, giving few points of leverage. Possibilities include expanding sanctions on state companies, banning the national airline Belavia from landing at EU airports, kicking Belarus out of the International Civil Aviation Organization, or even booting the country from Interpol. Minsk has issued spurious Interpol red notices, roughly akin to an international arrest warrant, as a way to harass and disrupt the travel of critics overseas. 

Since protests broke out last August, the Belarusian government has waged a steady and brutal war of attrition against the country’s citizens in which people have been arrested for simply displaying the red-and-white flag associated with the opposition or even wearing socks with the same colors. Early last week, Tut.by, the country’s most popular news site not controlled by the state, was shut down. Later in the week, news broke that opposition activist Vitold Ashurak had died in unclear circumstances in prison, where he was serving a five-year sentence for participating in anti-government protests. 

International attention toward the crisis had begun to flag, and demonstrations have waned as the authorities have exacted a punishing toll on protesters. But Sunday’s decision to intercept a civilian airline with a fighter jet promises to slingshot Belarus back to the top of Europe’s agenda. 

“What Lukashenko did today makes no sense to be honest. Street activity is at its lowest point for over a year now,” Giczan said in an interview on Sunday.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer