May 24, 2021

On Sunday, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus forced a commercial airliner, operated by Ryanair, flying from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, out of the sky as it passed through the airspace over Belarus. A MiG-29 fighter jet diverted the plane to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, after ground support warned its pilots (falsely) there was a bomb on board.

There wasn’t a bomb on the plane; there was an opposition journalist, 26-year-old Roman Protasevich (also spelled Raman Pratasevich), who was traveling with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who is a law student and a Russian citizen. Once the plane was on the ground, security forces took the two of them away. Pratasevich told another passenger: “I am facing the death penalty.” Three other passengers also stayed in Minsk; Lithuanian authorities are trying to figure out who they were.

Lukashenko, who has been called “Europe’s Last Dictator,” has been president of Belarus since 1994 and claimed to be reelected on August 9, 2020, with 80% of the vote, although before the election the president’s security forces threw journalists, political opponents, activists, and human rights defenders in jail. After the election, security forces arrested almost 7000 people in four days, denying many food and water and torturing hundreds of them. By mid-November, the number arrested had climbed to more than 25,000 people.

The European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom did not recognize Lukashenko’s claim of an election victory. They called for an end to the political prosecutions and a new election.

In Belarus, which has a population of about 9.5 million, hundreds of thousands of protesters were more direct. They took to the streets, calling for new elections and Lukashenko’s resignation. Protasevich was not in the country. He had begun protesting Lukashenko as a teenager; he was arrested and beaten in 2012 when he was 17 for running opposition groups on social media. He fled Belarus in 2019 and, from exile, was one of the journalists who operated a communications channel to provide information about the democratic movement during the demonstrations. The government declared him a “terrorist” in absentia. Terrorism carries the death penalty in Belarus.

To capture Protasevich, Lukashenko has committed an act of state-sponsored piracy against two European Union countries, a European-registered airline, and passengers who are mostly European Union citizens. This is an astonishing move that likely has something to do with Lukashenko’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian officials praised the hijacking, calling it a “brilliant special operation.”

Russia and Belarus loosely agreed to form a unified state in 1996 and made the agreement tighter in 1999, but Lukashenko has not been eager to give up control of his country. As his grip on his people has weakened, though, Lukashenko has turned to Russia, which gave Belarus a loan of $1 billion in December 2020. Lukasheko and Putin are scheduled to meet this week.

Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic, an authoritative scholar of authoritarianism, notes that autocrats are watching to see how the West reacts, since they, too, would like to be able to control their dissident communities in exile, showing them: “You are not safe. You are never safe. Not even if you live in a democracy; not even if you have political asylum; not even if you are sitting on a commercial plane, thousands of feet above the ground.”

Immediately after the hijacking, Western leaders, including the secretary-general of NATO, the president of the European Commission, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, condemned it. Today, European leaders imposed sanctions on Belarus and prohibited airplanes from the European Union from flying over Belarus. As the U.S. lets Europe take the lead on the response, it is demonstrating definitively that the U.S. and European countries are united and that the divisions fostered under the former president are gone. 

This afternoon, Belarus released a 29-second video of Pratasevich that appeared to be a forced confession. Tonight, President Biden issued a statement saying "The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr. Pratasevich…. This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press."

The National Security Council then shared a readout of a call between NSC adviser Jake Sullivan and the Belarus opposition leader who likely won the 2020 election, indicating American support for “the demands of the Belarusian people for democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.”

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, new documents unsealed in the Paul Manafort case today show that the Trump campaign chair did, indeed, collude with his partner Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian operative, before the 2016 election. The documents come from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s case arguing that Manafort had not delivered his side of the plea bargain he had made. They show that Manafort—whom Trump later pardoned—repeatedly lied to federal investigators during their interviews. He lied about his contact with Kilimnik and about discussing a peace plan between Ukraine and Russia that would create an autonomous eastern Ukraine—that is the region Russia wants—and about sharing internal polling data with Kilimnick.

In separate news, we also learned that a security unit in the Commerce Department turned into a rogue counterintelligence operation over the past few years, collecting information on hundreds of people suspected of talking critically about the 2020 U.S. census or of having ties to China. John Costello, who was a deputy assistant secretary of intelligence and security in the department during the Trump administration, told Washington Post reporter Shawn Boburg that the office “has been allowed to operate far outside the bounds of federal law enforcement norms and has created an environment of paranoia and retaliation.” The unit seems to have become a tool to target employees of Chinese descent.

When they took over, Biden officials ordered the unit to stop all activities until further review.

A new Gallup poll today finds that 53% of Republicans think that Trump won the 2020 election. But only 26% of Americans identify as Republicans. Journalist Richard Hine crunched the numbers and notes that those percentages boil down to about 14% of Americans who think Trump is still president. They are a minority, but they believe the former president, who continues to insist that he won the 2020 election despite all evidence to the contrary.