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E.U. Moves to Sever Belarus Airlinks Over Ryanair Plane Diversion


MAY 24, 2021

A protest by Belarusians living in Poland in support of Roman Protasevich on Monday. – Wojtek Radwanski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The European Union on Monday called on all E.U.- based airlines to stop flying over Belarus and began the process of banning Belarusian airlines from flying over the bloc’s airspace or landing in its airports — effectively severing the country’s air connections to Western Europe.

The action, announced Monday evening during a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels, was prompted by Belarus’s forced landing of a commercial flight between Greece and Lithuania a day earlier.

After diverting the plane to Minsk, the Belarusian authorities arrested Roman Protasevich, a young Belarusian. His partner, Sofia Sapega, was also not allowed to reboard the Ryanair flight.

E.U. leaders called for their “immediate release” and demanded that “their freedom of movement be guaranteed.”

It is not the first time the bloc has moved against Belarus’s strongman leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

Even before the airplane incident, it had imposed sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko and some of his associates after Belarusian elections last year and the violent crackdown that followed. European officials dismissed the vote as neither free nor fair.

On Monday, outraged over the forced landing of the Irish-based airline’s jetliner, European leaders moved to ratchet up the pressure on the regime.

In addition to the aviation measures, they also pledged to add new economic sanctions against the Minsk government, but those can be legally cumbersome, and will most likely take longer to enforce than the aviation-focused measures.

After huddling for a closed-door meeting — with mobile devices banned to ensure complete privacy — the leaders of the European Union’s 27 member countries reached their decision to cut Belarus’s air links with uncharacteristic swiftness.

Consensus on fraught issues generally does not come easily, or quickly, for the bloc. But given the brazenness of the Belarusian actions, few raised serious objections to this course of action, E.U. officials said.

Arriving for the meeting in Brussels, leader after leader had pledged a strong response.

“It’s madness!” declared Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg. “It’s like something out of a very bad movie. It shows the state of the regime.”

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, calling the airline interception — complete with warplane — and the forced landing, as well as the arrest of the young journalist, an “utterly unacceptable hijacking.”

President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania, the flight’s final destination and home to Mr. Protasevich, called the action “state terrorism.”

Ms. von der Leyen said the European Union was ready to invest three billion euros in Belarus if a democratic transition led by the opposition took place.

Analysts had predicted that the E.U. might be reluctant to ban flights over Belarus because such a move would create difficulties for European airlines. Already, airlines are avoiding Ukraine, the country’s southern neighbor, because of its conflict with Russia.

Putting Belarusian air space off limits as well presents serious routing difficulties for flights from Europe to Asia.

“Flying to Asia from Europe without crossing Belarus is likely too costly and challenging,” analysts from Eurasia Group, a research firm, wrote in a note on Monday.

The E.U. has also asked a United Nations agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, to investigate the incident. The Montreal-based agency scheduled an urgent meeting for Thursday, but the inquiry may take months to complete.

Courtesy/Source: NY Times