‘North Korea in the heart of Europe’?


Draped in the Belarusian flag. Photo by Jana Shnipelson on Unsplash


“Too often…we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”
– John F. Kennedy

Two statements sum up the implications of  the weekend’s dramatic Ryanair flight diversion by Belarus’s authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko in order to arrest an opposition journalist.

First, the warning issued by Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. “If the Europeans don’t want North Korea in the centre of Europe, if they don’t want aeroplanes with passengers to be shot down, they should react . . .,” Mr Viacorka said. “It’s no longer a matter of Belarusian domestic policy, it is an issue of European security now”.

Second, this comment offered by Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the UK’s House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee. He told a BBC journalist on Monday morning that if this sort of sky-jacking of a commercial plane is allowed, she should, in future, check the route she overflies. Who knows, Mr Tugendhat said, which leaders of which countries you’ve criticised in the course of your journalistic career.

That is exactly the lens through which to view the state-sponsored sky-jacking of the Athens-to-Vilnius Ryanair flight. All the sanctions in the world and all the careful skirting of Belarusian airspace by European commercial flights won’t help if the basic principles of international air travel are no longer valid.

Lawlessness will be the new world order.

Western journalists have been pointing out that if even tiny Belarus can demand that a plane divert to Minsk in order to arrest an opposition journalist, what is to stop the Iranians from compelling a plane to land in Tehran, or the Russians from forcing a jet down over Siberia?

Sure. But there are further, more disturbing implications as well, and they go beyond China, Iran and Russia. What’s to stop India’s Hindu nationalist government insisting that a plane bearing an overseas critic land in Delhi? Or a Trump-like US administration sending fighter jets to escort a plane carrying supposedly “woke”, pro-democracy columnists to Andrews Air Force Base? Or Turkey compelling touchdown of a carrier full of outspoken citizens in Ankara? Or…the list is long but you get my drift.

What’s clear is that we’re witnessing a slide of the rules-based order into anything goes.

At the heart of all of this, of course, there is the human story, the terror of the 26-year-old activist journalist Roman Protasevich. Politico reports on the events unfolding onboard as the Ryanair plane was being diverted to Minsk. One passenger told Politico: “Behind me, a man stands up and says he wants to talk to the steward. “Don’t do this. They will kill me. I am a refugee”, he pleaded. The frightened man was Mr Protasevich.

It offers much-needed clarity on the issues – large and small – at stake.