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Belarus ‘State Hijacking’ Prompts Talk of More Sanctions

The decision was reportedly given directly by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, which will likely amplify calls for fresh elections.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A woman holds a sign at Vilnius International Airport.
A woman holds a sign in the arrival area of Vilnius International Airport as passengers disembark on May 23. Petras Malukas/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: EU and U.S. leaders consider Belarus sanctions after flight forcibly diverted, Samoa’s constitutional crisis deepens, and a look at the world this week.

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Outrage After Belarus Grounds Flight

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: EU and U.S. leaders consider Belarus sanctions after flight forcibly diverted, Samoa’s constitutional crisis deepens, and a look at the world this week.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Outrage After Belarus Grounds Flight

Outraged U.S. and EU leaders are considering sanctions against Belarus after the country scrambled a fighter jet to forcibly divert a Ryanair flight headed to Lithuania—forcing it to land instead in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to arrest a dissident. The decision to ground the Vilnius-bound flight was reportedly made directly by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, using the pretext of a bomb threat on board. Ryanairs CEO told Irish media Belarusian intelligence agents were reportedly on board.

The aircraft stayed on the Minsk tarmac for roughly 7 hours before making its way to Vilnius, finally completing its journey from Athens. The plane left without Roman Protasevich, the co-founder and former editor of NEXTA, a popular media outlet for Belaruss embattled opposition. According to a post later deleted by the Belarusian interior ministry, Protasevich was arrested at Minsk National Airport; his girlfriend, a Russian citizen, was also forced off the plane.

Protasevich was put on a terrorist watchlist by Minsk authorities last year on suspicion of starting riots and inciting hatred, charges that could lead to 12 to 15 years in prison.

Air piracy. EU leaders used the terms air piracy and state hijacking to describe the incident. The leaders of Lithuania and Poland, where Protasevich was living in exile, have been vocal in calling for action. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for fresh sanctions on Belarus at a meeting of EU leaders on Monday while Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called Belarus’s action an unprecedented act of state terrorism.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has promised “consequences” for “outrageous and illegal behavior” and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the incident “shocking” and said the United States is working with its partners on further action.

More sanctions? It’s not yet clear what steps these leaders can take. Lukashenko and many of his domestic allies are already under EU and U.S. sanctions over his government’s repressive tactics. The EU added Lukashenko to its sanctions list in November 2020 following a brutal crackdown by state authorities after the Aug. 9 presidential election, a vote considered fraudulent by international election monitors.

No fly zone. One immediate action Western leaders could take would be to ban all air traffic over Belarus, a move suggested by the leaders of eight countries foreign affairs committees, including U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, in a joint letter issued on Sunday. The leaders condemned Belarus’s actions as “an act of piracy,” requested Belarus’s suspension from international bodies like Interpol, and called for fresh elections.

The World This Week

On Monday, May 24, a two-day summit of the European Council takes place in Brussels on the subject of the bloc’s response to COVID-19, climate change, and Russia.

Guillermo Lasso is inaugurated as president of Ecuador following his surprise victory in April’s election.

On Wednesday, May 26, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Israel and the West Bank as well as Egypt and Jordan as part of peace efforts following the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas last week. 

On Thursday, May 27, French President Emmanuel Macron visits Rwanda as the two countries seek to improve relations following the publication of reports detailing France’s role during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

On Sunday, May 30, Cyprus holds parliamentary elections.

What We’re Following Today

Israel’s government. A potential coalition deal to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is back on, Israeli media reported on Sunday, as Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, appears to have resumed talks with the centrist Yesh Atid party. If a deal is struck, Bennett will reportedly be first in line for prime minister in a rotation arrangement. Bennett previously withdrew from negotiations with Yesh Atid during Israel’s 11-day conflict with Hamas. A cease-fire, now in its fifth day, still holds.

Samoa in crisis. The inauguration of Samoa’s first female prime minister has been thrown into turmoil. Fiame Naomi Mataafa won a slim majority in Samoa’s parliament after an independent lawmaker backed her party, breaking a 25 to 25 seat split following April elections. However, the incumbent, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, has abruptly canceled the parliamentary session Mataafa was slated to be sworn in during and has publicly refused to step down.

Mataafa denounced the move as a coup and called it “an illegal takeover of government.” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called for Samoa to “uphold the rule of law,” a sentiment echoed by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Italy’s tragedy. Fourteen people died in Italy on Sunday after a cable car they were traveling in fell to the ground. Although the exact cause of the tragedy is not yet known, authorities have so far blamed the collapse on a broken cable. Transport Minister Enrico Giovannini immediately announced a commission to investigate the incident and plans to visit the site today. The incident is the most deadly incident to occur on Italian infrastructure since a bridge collapsed in 2018, killing 43 people.

Keep an Eye On

Turkey’s drones. Poland become the first NATO member to purchase Turkish drones, Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said on Saturday. The contract for 24 armed Bayraktar TB2 drones is due to be signed by Polish President Andrzej Duda when he travels to Turkey next week. The sale underlines Turkey’s status as the world’s fourth largest drone producer and comes after its unmanned aircraft were seen as crucial in securing victory for Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia last year.

Perus election. Peru’s socialist candidate Pedro Castillo has opened up a wide polling lead ahead of the country’s presidential election on June 6. Castillo garnered the support of 44.8 percent of supporters in a recent poll, more than 10 points ahead of his challenger, the conservative Keiko Fujimori. Castillo’s campaign appears to have recovered from a dip in support earlier in the month, which showed he and Fujimori at almost even support.

Odds and Ends

Free beer, doughnuts, and even marijuana have been used to entice people to get a COVID-19 vaccine across the United States. In rural Thailand, residents have been offered a beefier alternative. The Mae Chaem District in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Mai has offered vaccinated villagers the chance to win a live cow (worth roughly $320 dollars) every week until the end of the year in a bid to increase vaccinations.

The program is already seeing some success. “Our vaccine registration numbers have gone from hundreds to thousands in a couple of days,” district chief Boonlue Thamtharanurak told Reuters. “The villagers love cows. Cows can be sold for cash.”

Officials are scrambling to register residents ahead of a mass vaccination campaign beginning on June 7. So far, 2.1 percent of Thailand’s population has received a vaccine dose.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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