On 23 May Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered a MiG-29 to escort a Ryanair passenger flight to Minsk in order to arrest a wanted domestic critic who was onboard. The Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius, which was carrying 172 passengers, was ordered to divert to Minsk over an alleged bomb threat, but no evidence of a bomb was discovered after the flight landed.
Belarus has been accused of hijacking the Ryanair flight after forcing it to perform an emergency landing in Minsk due to an alleged bomb threat. The flight was forced under fighter escort to divert just two minutes from the Lithuanian border to perform the emergency landing, even though its final destination of Vilnius was much closer than Minsk. Upon landing in Minsk, the opposition activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich, along with his girlfriend, were arrested before the plane then departed for Vilnius. Pratasevich, the former editor and co-founder of the Nexta Telegram channel that has reported extensively on Lukashenka's repression and clampdowns on opponents, was put on a terrorist watchlist in November, and now faces up to 15 years in prison or the death penalty.
The incident comes amid a major intensification of state clampdowns on the opposition in recent weeks, with numerous raids and arrests against journalists and news agencies in the days preceding the Ryanair incident. Over 30,000 people are estimated to have been detained since the disputed August 2020 election triggered nationwide anti-government protests last year, with the risk of arbitrary detention for foreign journalists and NGO staff particularly high. On 17 May Lukashenka signed a new law strengthening the state's security forces in a bid to 'prevent civil unrest'. As such, uniformed officers are no longer responsible for the damage caused in their application of force, and are legally permitted to use specialist weapons and military equipment against protesters. As a result, the risk of casualties during any future anti-government protests will be heightened as Lukashenka doubles down on repression to maintain his grip on power.
Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary has stated that he believes agents of the Belarusian KGB were aboard the flight, corroborating Pratasevich's own assertion that KGB agents had been following him at Athens airport and the fact that four Russian-speaking passengers exited the plane at Minsk without going on to Vilnius. It thus seems likely that KGB agents engineered a 'conflict' between the plane's crew and an unidentified passenger in order to force the diversion, reinforcing accusations of an effective hijacking. It is furthermore likely that KGB agents are active across the EU in monitoring opposition figures in exile, sustaining the risk of other threatening incidents in foreign jurisdictions.
The unprecedented move has triggered widespread condemnation and calls for fresh sanctions on Minsk. Many Western officials and commentators have described it as an act of 'state sponsored terrorism', with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) describing it as a possible violation of international air travel rules under the Chicago Convention. Both Latvia and Lithuania have stated that the airspace over Belarus should be considered unsafe, with EU leaders expected to meet today, 24 May, to discuss strengthening sanctions against Minsk. According to anonymous senior EU officials, the bloc's leaders are considering suspending overflights of all EU airlines over Belarus, banning Belarus' state airline Belavia from landing at EU airports, and ending transit from Belarus to the EU. An ICAO investigation is also expected to be launched.
The unprecedented move to forcibly divert a civilian passenger flight under a seeming bomb threat marks a dangerous escalation in the Lukashenka regime's pursuit of its domestic opponents. The seeming employment of KGB agents to engineer a bomb threat and the scrambling of a MiG-29 fighter clearly reflects the new lengths Minsk is willing to go in order to apprehend its opponents. This precedent not only increases the security and policy risks for foreign airlines operating in or near Belarusian airspace, but reflects a broader risk of foreign businesses being coerced or directly targeted during similar security service operations. In the meantime, airlines carrying exiled Belarusian politicians are likely to be advised to adjust their flight paths in the short term as a precautionary measure.
Other sectors at particular risk going forward will include Belarusian-based hospitality firms and NGOs, with Lukashenka's growing disregard for international repercussions increasing the risk of raids on hotels whose guests include government critics. A new decree ruling that uniformed officers are no longer responsible for the damage caused in their application of force will only reinforce the risk of physical threats and damage to foreign firms going forward. In addition, with the Ryanair incident indicating KGB agents are likely active across the EU in monitoring opposition figures, this risk of physical threat cannot be ruled out for non-Belarusian based businesses whose clients include exiled Belarusian figures, though an overt attempt to apprehend an opposition figure in a foreign jurisdiction still remains relatively unlikely.
With EU leaders meeting today, fresh Western sanctions on Belarus remain highly likely. Policy risk will thus be particularly high in the weeks ahead for Western firms with business interests in the country as new measures against state- or oligarch-owned businesses will likely be considered. In addition, the Ryanair incident is likely to breath new life into an ongoing divestment campaign, increasing the risk of multinationals coming under renewed pressure to break business ties with Belarus altogether.