State terrorism in Europe

What happened on Sunday on a Ryanair flight within the European Union ought to serve as a frigid shower for anyone who ventures into opposition or activist journalism. Ryanair was flying between the capitals of Greece and Lithuania on Sunday when it briefly passed through Belarusian airspace shortly before it was due to land in Vilnius. Under the false pretext of a bomb scare, the Belarusian authorities forced the Irish low-cost airline to the ground. No explosives were found, but an opposition journalist of Belarusian origins happened to be on board. The exiled journalist, Roman Protasevich, former editor of Nexta media and opponent of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, was on board the flight and was arrested by the authorities as soon as the plane was forced to land in Minsk.

Already in Athens, before boarding, he wrote to friends and colleagues that someone had followed him to the airport and had taken photographs before departing. It was not the first time he had noticed he was being followed. Earlier, Lukashenko’s men had issued a warrant for Protasevich’s arrest after the journalist and opposition activist took part in street protests against the dictator following last year’s rigged elections. Lukashenko lost the election but did not resign. The winner – Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – is in exile and risks immediate arrest should she venture home.

If the European Union is unable to provide a united and forceful response – a response that goes beyond the usual verbal condemnation – then there will be far-reaching consequences for all those who engage in the public democratic discourse. There is no need to overthink this: the state-initiated hijacking of an aircraft by an authoritarian regime, in order to capture anyone, from anywhere, will be tolerated.

We do not know the fate of Roman Protasevich. He is somewhere in Minsk, presumably in a jail cell. After he was taken off the plane, not a word was heard of him. He faces up to 15 years in prison for organizing mass demonstrations against the dictator. Protasevich, however, was visibly frightened when it emerged that his Ryanair flight had been diverted and he suggested that he was going to be killed.

Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said on Sunday afternoon: “I call on the Belarusian authorities to release the detained passenger immediately and to fully guarantee his rights. EU leaders will discuss this unprecedented incident at the European Council tomorrow. The incident will not be without consequences.”

Given that Belarus is seen by the Budapest regime as an ally in many respects, to what extent would Hungary support strong EU action? A more realistic question may be this: what methods would the Orbán regime use to block or neutralize an effective EU response? If the Hungarian regime opts for sabotage, we already know that this time it cannot count on Polish collaboration.

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