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Ryanair flight hijacking: part of a bigger strategy?

The recent emboldened moves made by Lukashenka seem to be pushing Belarus even closer into Russia’s embrace. Faced with behaviours difficult to explain one must ask – who gains?

June 9, 2021 - German Carboni - Articles and Commentary

Alexander Lukashenko during the anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. Photo: Drop of Light / Shutterstock

The hijacking of Ryanair flight 4978 and the subsequent arrest of Protasevich go against any apparent rationale. The act only further isolated Belarus and encouraged a new wave of dissent. Yet contrary to all appearances, Lukashenka may not have lost his political strength, as he is reinforcing his position at home and vis-à-vis Russia.

In the weeks leading up to May 23rd, Lukashenka was making his first timid steps to escape international isolation. This followed a campaign to stabilise the country’s internal situation and reduce the opposition abroad to relative insignificance. Belarus started seeking closer relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan and even held talks with Yevgeniy Shevchenko, a Ukrainian MP from President Zelenskyy’s party.

Today, however, everything seems to have completely changed. Demonstrations made a comeback in the country and the West appears ready to cripple strategic sectors of the Belarusian economy. Relations with Ukraine have also reached a new low, with Lukashenka working with LPR representatives and even entertaining the idea of recognising Crimea as a part of Russia.

Minsk appears to lack any support beyond Russia and is seemingly condemned to depending fully on Moscow. The recent price paid by Lukashenka appears to be too high and can be justified only by an error of judgement. Facing behaviours that are difficult to explain, the Ancient Romans used to ask themselves cui prodest? Who gains? 

As suggested by journalist Maksim Shevchenko, Moscow seems to be a good candidate. At first sight, Moscow avoided being implicated in the hijacking, ensuring Belarus’ complete dependence exactly when Minsk was starting to further develop its traditional ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy. Lukashenka’s references to a model of cooperation and unity with Russia closer than “the one existing between federal subjects [in the Russian Federation]” suggest that Moscow may ultimately be the ongoing crisis’s main beneficiary.

Despite this, the long discussions between Putin and Lukashenka in Sochi on May 28th and 29th did not lead to any new integration initiatives. Indeed, it only resulted in a 500 million dollar loan to Belarus and the opening of new Belavia flight routes in order to compensate for the loss of the EU and Ukrainian markets. Overall, it appears that were no public concessions made by Belarus. 

The Belarusian government might be gaining more than it appears at first sight from the Kremlin. Before May 23rd, it was clear that relations with the West and in particular the EU were already ruined. Although Minsk could have hoped for a detente over the medium or long-term, its priority right now is finding the unconditional investment and financial relief needed to keep the economy afloat and preserve the employment for its power base, which is mostly made up of industrial workers.

Before the hijacking, a weakening of internal and external protest and full financial dependence on Russia allowed Moscow to potentially restart its campaign to obtain more political and economic concessions. This includes a potential political transition and privatisation. Despite this, Lukashenka does not seem eager to allow anyone else in the country to talk with the Russians. Indeed, on May 4th the pro-Russian party Soyuz, after a successful first congress, was denied registration

However, after the Protasevich affair, this uncomfortable position radically changed. As outlined by journalist Giovanni Savino, Lukashenka exploited the tense relations between Russia and the West to force Moscow to drop its plans. Lukashenka presented his actions as being in Russia’s best interests. The emphasis placed on Protasevich’s activities in the Azov Battalion should be also understood in this sense. Facing unprecedented pressure from the West and an increasingly powerful pro-Western opposition, Russia is left with no other choice but to offer unconditional support to Lukashenka. 

Any further destabilisation faced by the Belarusian president could create opportunities for the country’s recently emboldened pro-Western forces to challenge the government. Of course, Lukashenka’s potential fall would certainly be dangerous for Russia and all other authoritarian regimes in the region. Any change in government would be inevitably linked to policies taken by the EU, which often enacts sanctions and other restrictive policies when a post-Soviet authoritarian regime faces an internal crisis. Of course, these policies are naturally a strong incentive for local oppositions to further pressure their governments. The potential benefits for the EU and its image would be immense in such a scenario. This partially explains the EU’s uncommonly aggressive stance regarding Minsk. 

Interestingly, recent weeks have seen the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) discuss potentially working towards common countermeasures for the first time. These talks occurred even before the hijacking on May 23rd. Moscow has no choice but to support these measures. The Kremlin has to once again postpone any plan for a transition in Belarus and allow Lukashenka to maintain his autonomy. This is a clear win for the Belarusian president, especially before the Putin-Biden meeting in Geneva, where he could have been used as a bargaining chip.

Whilst an already weak opposition abroad is gaining visibility in the country, it has found it difficult to improve its image in Belarus. Despite appearing unable to coordinate any significant action within the state, Tikhanovskaya recently asked for the West to impose economic sanctions. These would only end up harming the Belarusian people. Furthermore, the difficulties associated with leaving the country following the Belavia sanctions and the closure of the land borders leave the domestic opposition even more vulnerable to repression.

Despite international isolation, the country’s multi-vector foreign policy directed towards the south remained largely unscathed. While the consequences of Ukraine closing its airspace to Belarusian air travel remains to be seen, Lukashenka has still not recognised Crimea as a part of Russia. The country’s ‘opening’ towards the Turkic states of Azerbaijan and Turkey has not only remained in place but has even resulted in real gains. For example, Ankara recently insisted that NATO soften the tone of a recent statement condemning the Belarusian government.

Cui prodest? Contrary to what may have been thought at the beginning, the ‘winner’ of the Protasevich affair is Lukashenka. It is difficult to affirm with certainty that the hijacking was the result of a ‘Machiavellian’ grand strategy or a spontaneous act. If Protasevich’s words on Belarusian TV are to be believed, his arrest is the product of neither of these approaches. What is certain, however, is that the game that followed this event has been well played by Lukashenka. He has achieved all the immediate objectives necessary to consolidate his power vis-à-vis Moscow and consequently his status within the country in the medium-term.

German Carboni is a graduate of the College of Europe. His research interests include post-Soviet, EU Affairs and Energy Policy.

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