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Sanctioning Belavia: EU’s security first, Belarusians second

The EU’s decision to ban Belarusian airlines’ access to EU airports and airspace is not pragmatic and risks the ‘Donbassisation’ of Belarus in line with Russia’s playbook. The EU’s policy towards Belarus needs to have at its heart the strategic objectives of securing people-to-people contacts, promoting European values and keeping Belarus and its citizens close to the EU.

June 14, 2021 - Katsiaryna Lozka Yuliya Miadzvetskaya - Articles and Commentary

Belavia aircraft tail units against pink sky during calm evening at the Minsk International airport Photo: Dmitry Kovach / Shutterstock

The hijacking of the Ryanair flight FR4978 on May 23rd triggered unprecedented reaction from the EU. Within 24 hours following the forced landing, the European Council reiterated its call for sanctions and called upon the Council to ban Belarusian airlines from European skies. Already on May 25th, EU airplanes pre-emptively stopped flying over Belarus and accepting the Belarusian national airline – Belavia – on their territories. Ukraine joined the EU’s ban on May 26th. Finally, the ban on Belavia’s overflight of EU territory was operationalised by the Council on the 4th of June. In the course of a few days, Belarus fell into isolation, with Russia becoming the main destination still available for the country’s airline. 

EU’s security first?

It is striking that the hijacking of the Ryanair flight provoked a considerably stronger reaction from the EU than ten months of the most wide-reaching repression Belarus has known since the Soviet Union. Conclusions adopted by the European Council just after the incident called for, in addition to the airspace ban, further targeted financial and economic sanctions. The EU’s reaction to this direct security threat is in stark contrast to the ‘wait and see’ approach adopted by the  Union in response to the recent state of lawlessness in Belarus. Many Belarusians, including the leaders of the opposition, were disappointed with the EU’s moderate response to long-lasting human rights violations in the country and were calling for more comprehensive economic sanctions.

Indeed, the EU refrained from any decisive actions with respect to Belarus. Instead, it prioritised security and stability on its Eastern borders. The fourth round of EU sanctions scheduled for June is conditional upon the collection of evidence against those on the list. In the meantime, the number of political prisoners in Belarus soared to 477 on June 10th and it still keeps growing. Around 35,000 Belarusians were prosecuted on administrative charges. Several cases of ill-treatment and the torture of detainees were documented by UN human rights experts. Many Belarusians are on the brink of despair. An 18-year-old recently committed suicide because of the pressure placed on them by the authorities for allegedly instigating riots. Another political prisoner, Stsiapan Latypau, attempted suicide during his trial process. Overall, amidst the ten month brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Belarus, the EU was reluctant to speak “the language of power”.

Despite this, there now appears to be an unexpected wind of change regarding the EU’s approach toward Belarus. The disrespect for the law that the Belarusian authorities demonstrated for around one year at the national level suddenly took on international dimensions. The forced landing of the Ryanair plane in order to kidnap Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega was a blow to the EU’s security and international transport norms. The EU’s goal of building a “ring of friends” through the Eastern Partnership and thus ensuring regional prosperity and stability was undermined at its core. This is one of the reasons why the EU had to react decisively and immediately go beyond mere acts of denunciation. By diverting a civil aviation flight Belarusian authorities committed an attack on the union itself and set a dangerous precedent for other undemocratic regimes. To deter others from similar attacks on European values, the EU had to send a clear signal that the behaviour of the Belarusian authorities crossed the line and must be harshly sanctioned for posing a threat to the EU’s security.

The ban on flights: a symbolic blow to the Belarusian regime

The introduced ban has resulted in some economic consequences for the Belarusian regime. Belarus used to be a hub for international flights and a popular destination for layovers, connecting Europe with Asia and the Middle East as well as various internal destinations. The aviation industry, however, supposedly accounted for only two to three per cent of Belarusian GDP. Thus, the introduced ban is likely to primarily hit ‘Belaeronavigatsia’, the state-owned enterprise that provides air navigation services for foreign users of the country’s airspace. According to some estimates, its yearly income amounts to 50-70 million US dollars, with up to 200,000 flights from 92 countries operating in Belarusian airspace. The introduced ban will naturally generate a net loss for the state enterprise.

The EU’s prompt reaction to the hijacking has become a significant, yet largely symbolic blow to Lukashenka’s regime. Pointing to its symbolic meaning, Lukashenka criticised the EU’s response during a meeting in Sochi with Russian President Putin on May 28th. The Belarusian regime naturally put the blame on the West for the expected costs that the ban will cause. Earlier, Lukashenka attributed the incident to “ill-wishers”, accusing the West of “total lies” and attempts to “strangle” the country.

The anti-Western rhetoric of the Belarusian regime has become a regular part of the country’s response to Western pressure and appeals for support to its neighbour to the East. Following the outcome of the Sochi meeting, Belavia is expected to open several new flight routes to Russian cities. While acknowledging the importance of EU solidarity, even a mid-term re-orientation of Belarusian airspace to various Russian cities risks further isolating the Belarusian people.

People-to-people contacts under risk

When adopting coercive measures, the EU has always faced a difficult dilemma as to how to sanction the regime without inflicting damage on ordinary Belarusians. While all measures will naturally hit the Belarusian population, the ban on flights needs to be considered very delicately as it risks trapping the Belarusians with the illegitimate regime, which continues to survive behind an imagined “besieged fortress” with the help of its Russian counterpart. Of course, such an outcome contradicts the EU’s own foreign policy priorities.

During low moments in EU-Belarus relations, the EU has followed a two-track policy. This has involved intensifying contacts with civil society and the democratic opposition whilst simultaneously scaling down bilateral cooperation with Minsk. The EU has also redirected financial assistance from the central authorities to civil society during these times.

In its 2006 ‘non-paper’ “What the EU could bring to Belarus”, the EU already identified people-to-people contacts and easier travel as some of the key elements for improving the quality of life of Belarusians. The importance of enhanced people-to-people contacts between the EU and Belarus has been stressed since 2009 by the Council of the EU. With the objective of fostering mobility and cross-border cooperation, visa facilitation and readmission agreements were also signed by the EU and Belarus. These entered into force last year. Together with the Mobility Partnership, these documents are key instruments in developing cooperation between the EU and Belarus regarding migration and contributing to people-to-people contacts between the two parties.

The EU’s decision to ban Belarusian airlines from its skies raises several questions with respect to what it ultimately hopes to achieve. If the EU wants to stick to its own values and help Belarusians escape prosecution and move around Europe in a secure environment, it would not facilitate the policy of isolation imposed by Minsk. Belarus already temporarily closed its land borders in December. In May the State Border Committee announced that having a temporary residence permit abroad does not constitute sufficient grounds for leaving the country. Recent days have seen Belarusians report even more difficulties when trying to leave the state. These developments triggered protest actions of the Belarusian diaspora in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania to force the Belarusian authorities to open land borders.

The EU needs a forward-thinking approach to the Belarus crisis

Responding to the Belarusian crisis, the European Union has so far tried to (largely symbolically) pressure the regime while simultaneously developing a strategy for a post-Lukashenka Belarus. The EU has been discussing sanctions against Minsk whilst also participating in a ten billion US dollar plan to support the first three years of a democratic Belarus. In this regard, the ban on flights is rather an exception as it has no set duration. It also does not offer a forward-thinking vision for easing travel restrictions or a possible visa-free regime with a democratic Belarus.

The potential consequences of the ban are ultimately difficult to know. On the one hand, the Ryanair hijacking has internationalised the crisis and demonstrated that the horrors of dictatorships can spread well beyond their borders. On the other hand, harsh restrictions on the freedom of movement for the rest of Lukashenka’s rule might end up creating a new ‘Iron Curtain’ in the East. Furthermore, the ban ultimately obscures the central problem of the crisis in Belarus: Lukashenka’s illegal grip on power and state-based violence.

In order to help the Belarusians, the EU needs to engage with the country’s citizens, not isolate them. Humanitarian corridors should be established to this end. People facing persecution and risking detention on political grounds should have the opportunity to leave the country. Since Russia does not present a ‘safe’ destination and the borders with Ukraine are closed, EU countries need to consider how to ensure that an opportunity to escape remains open.

Isolating the Belarusian people risks alienating them from the outside world. The country remains arguably the least known state in Europe. With the country’s continued attacks on independent media and promotion of state propaganda, the EU may find it increasingly difficult to react promptly to disinformation propagated by the regime. The Union may also encounter difficulties finding out what exactly is going on inside the country. Helping the Belarusian people to fight against disinformation should be one of the EU’s priorities. The launch of a fair and transparent fact-finding investigation of the Ryanair hijacking could be a vital building block in countering the various conspiracies and ‘blame games’ of the Belarusian regime.

Yuliya Miadzvetskaya is a researcher at KU Leuven and ReThink.CEE Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Katsiaryna Lozka is a PhD candidate at Ghent University and the United Nations University’s Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies.

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