EU Weighs Sanctions Over ‘Hijacking’ of Ryanair Jet by Belarus
(Bloomberg) -- European leaders will discuss possible sanctions after Belarus ordered a Ryanair Holdings Plc flight transiting its airspace to land and arrested a journalist on board in an unprecedented violation of European air travel protocols.
The forced landing and arrest of Raman Pratasevich, 26, who had fled Belarus after covering nationwide protests last year, drew sharp and unified condemnation from the U.S. and the European Union. EU leaders, meeting for dinner in Brussels Monday at the start of a two-day summit, will weigh measures such as travel restrictions and possible flight bans, according to two officials familiar with the matter. That would be top of a new sanctions package that Brussels was preparing to present next month.
But the bloc’s influence may be limited after years of sanctions against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime have had little impact and Minsk enjoys strong support from its closest ally in Moscow after a brutal crackdown on opponents.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised leaders would discuss consequences for Belarus’s diversion of the plane as it flew between Athens and Vilnius, calling it a “hijacking” and urging Pratasevich’s immediate release.
The simplest route for the EU is to impose more sanctions against individuals and entities, according to one of the officials. Other options, such as suspension of all flights by EU airlines over Belarus, banning state carrier Belavia from landing at airports in the bloc, and a halt to all transit, including ground travel from Belarus to the EU, would trigger increased costs for European companies, the person said.
Restrictions on air travel, meanwhile, risk further isolating ordinary Belarusian citizens after land borders were effectively closed for most travel to EU countries and Ukraine under the pretext of coronavirus restrictions.
Belarus’s Soviet-style economy depends mostly on trade with Moscow, which provides vital energy supplies and buys billions in Belarusian products. The EU accounts for about 20% of Belarus’s trade turnover compared to about half with Russia, according to the country’s foreign ministry.
Worries over potential sanctions are scaring away bond investors. Belarus’s dollar bonds due 2031 tanked on Monday, sending yields surging 60 basis points to 7.84%, the highest since August.
The international fury was triggered after a Mig-29 fighter jet escorted the Boeing Co. 737-800 carrying scores of passengers to the Belarusian capital Sunday, following a bomb threat that turned out to be fake.
“This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking,” Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said in comments broadcast by RTE Radio. The airline has to do a “detailed debrief today with the NATO and EU authorities” after the incident, which he said saw passengers and crew held under armed guard.
Pratasevich, the former editor-in-chief of one the most popular Telegram news channels in Belarus, wasn’t on the plane when it was allowed to take off again for Vilnius, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said in a recorded statement. The news channel, Nexta Live, extensively covered the protests against Lukashenko’s disputed sixth election victory in August and the government’s deadly response.
Pratasevich’s girlfriend, a Russian citizen, was also detained in Minsk, according to the European Humanities University in Vilnius, where she’s a student. At least four other people also remained in the Belarusian capital, according to Lithuanian officials.
“We believe there was also some KGB agents offloaded off the aircraft as well,” O’Leary said.
A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry in Minsk declined to comment.
“This is a serious and dangerous incident, which requires international investigation,” NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said on Twitter.
The post-election crackdown by Lukashenko’s administration on the opposition already resulted in U.S. and EU sanctions, and ended a brief detente with the West.
“This is clearly a sign of confidence from Lukashenko,” Ryhor Astapenia, director of the Belarus Initiative at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said. “It shows he is pretty sure now that he controls everything in the country, that he has managed to suppress the protests and is sure he can survive any foreign pressure that can come from the EU, the U.S. or the West in general.”
Lukashenko, in office since 1994, is slated to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russian state television reported Sunday. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow defended Belarus’s move.
“It’s shocking that the West is calling an incident in Belarus’s airspace ‘shocking,’” spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.
The latest incident has the potential to influence already strained ties between President Joe Biden and Putin, even as the two leaders move toward a potential first summit as soon as next month.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the move, saying the Biden administration supports the earliest possible meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization to review Sunday’s events.
The situation won’t effect plans for the summit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters Monday, while declining to comment on the details of the case.
Pratasevich and his Nexta colleague Stsiapan Putsila were accused of organizing mass unrest and group actions severely violating public order, the Investigative Committee said on Nov. 5. They were also accused of stirring “social hatred” against law enforcers via their Telegram channels.
Franak Viacorka, an adviser to the Belusian opposition, said that the arrest may also allow the authorities in Belarus to obtain information about fellow opposition members, facilitating a broader repression of independent reporting.
U.S. lawmakers joined with counterparts from seven other countries in calling for an inquiry by the Montreal-based ICAO into the incident.
“Until ICAO has reported, we call for Belarus to be suspended from the organization and a ban on all overflight of Belarus including flights to and from the country,” Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
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