Earlier this week, the Eastern European country Belarus stopped a plane travelling from Greece to Lithuania. While on the ground they took and arrested two of the passengers. This episode of Thinking in English will look at what happened, why Belarus took this action, and what some of the potential consequences could be for the country!

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Vocabulary List

Aboard (adv, preposition) – on or onto a ship, aircraft, bus or train

The flight attendant welcomed us aboard

To escort (v) – to go with a person or vehicle, especially to make certain that he, she, or it leaves or arrives safely

Security guards escorted the intruders from the building 

To hijack (v) – to take control of an aircraft or other vehicle during a journey, especially using violence 

Two men hijacked a jet travelling to Paris

Fraudulently (adv) – in a way that intends to deceive by doing something dishonest and illegal 

Someone has been fraudulently using my name

Exile (n) – the condition of someone being sent or kept away from their own country, village, etc., especially for political reasons

The king went into exile because of the political situation in his country 

Repression (n) – the use of force or violence to control a group of people

The political repression in this country is enforced by terror

Dissident (n) – a person who publicly disagrees with and criticizes their government

The government has been repressing political dissidents

To divert (v) – to cause something or someone to change direction

Our flight has to be diverted to Newark because of the storm

Earlier this week, a Ryanair aeroplane flying from Greece to Lithuania received a warning from authorities that there may be a security threat aboard the aircraft. That warning came from the Eastern European country of Belarus, and the Belurasian government sent a military fighter jet to escort the plane to the city of Minsk. Just before the plane reached Lithuanian airspace, the plane was forced to turn around and land in Belarus. There was no security threat found on the plane, even though the passengers and luggage were searched for several hours. The plane eventually took off again and finished its journey. However, two passengers were missing. 

These two passengers were a Belarusian journalist called Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend. Roman is a well known activist and critic of the President of Belarus. It quickly became clear that Belarus “hijacked” the aircraft, and lied about the security threats, just to arrest the opposition journalist and activist. There was never any sign of bomb. There was never any threat against the aircraft. The closest airport to the plane was not even in Belarus. Why did Belarus want to arrest these people? This episode of Thinking in English will try to provide some context to why Belarus did this, and also explore some of the consequences of the decision!

Belarus is an Eastern European country and former member of the Soviet Union. The country is known as the ‘last dictatorship in Europe.’ The president Alexander Lukashenko, who personally ordered the Ryanair plane to land, was elected in 1994 and has stayed in power for the last 26 years. Last year, according to many experts, he fraudulently declared victory in the nation’s elections and then arrested and tortured many people who protested against his government. By December 30,000 people had been detained, and more than 4,000 claimed to have been tortured, according to Nash Dom, a Belarusian NGO. Unlike some other former Soviet countries, Belarus has remained very close to Russia politically and economically. In fact, Russia’s support has helped maintain a decent standard of living in his country—better than in many other former Soviet states—which for many years kept the people happy. .Protests against the leader and government continue, but the numbers of people attending them have begun to fall. 

Roman Protasevich is a 26-year-old journalist who used to work for a Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which is known for broadcasting videos of protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year. He now works for a different organization, known as Belamova. Protasevich fled the country in 2019 and has been living in exile ever since. While he was being taken away, he told one of the other passengers, “I am facing the death penalty.”  After his arrest, he faces extremism charges in Belarus, including organising mass riots and inciting social hatred, related to the protests late last year. This could lead to 15 years in jail.

Why was Roman Protasevich targeted? Why did the country feel he was so important that they needed to hijack a plane to capture him? President Lukashenko has long targeted journalists who report the reality of the situation in the country. NEXTA is also described as an extremist organization, and perhaps the president is trying to scare all journalists and bloggers reporting in the country. Moreover, it demonstrates how even people abroad reporting on Belarus are at risk!

Human rights organisations have pointed to a new type of practice that some authoritarian countries are increasingly using. They call these practices “transnational repression.” In simple terms, authoritarian countries are becoming more comfortable repressing their enemies overseas. They no longer respect passports, borders, diplomatic customs, or the rules of air-traffic control. These countries will arrest or kill enemies anywhere in the world, no matter what country the enemy is, what laws they are breaking, or what nationality/citizenship of the enemy has. Let me give you some examples. In recent years Russia has used advanced poisons to attempt to kill political dissidents in the British cities of London and Salisbury; Saudi Arabia murdered a citizen in the countries embassy in Istanbul, Iran has assassinated enemies in the Netherlands and Turkey, and China has kidnapped and arrested Chinese nationals living abroad. Belarus’s decision to divert the plane fits perfectly in with these other examples of “transnational repression.”

What are some of the consequences of Belarus’s actions? Numerous Western leaders have openly and strongly condemned the hijacking, and demanded the release of the arrested couple. Latvia has already expelled the Belarus ambassador; Britain has already banned the Belarus national airline. There are likely to be further sanctions and economic punishments from the EU and member countries. Already, looking at online flight data suggests all airlines are avoiding Belarus’ airspace. 

It also sets a dangerous precedent. With hundreds of thousands of flights and millions of passengers taking to the skies every year, what happens if more countries follow Belarus’ example? There are lots of countries out there with lots of enemies! Belarus is often one of the forgotten countries of Europe. It has little relations with any country other than Russia, but this event might make other European powers more concerned over how Belarus runs its country. Especially if Belarus continues targeting its enemies overseas.

Final Thought

This episode of Thinking in English has looked at the recent events regarding Belarus’ capture of a Ryanair flight. It has quickly become clear that they were targeting an opposition journalist and activist. I have talked about some of the context of the situation, the reasons why Belarus committed such an act, and some of the possible consequences. What do you think? Does this incident concern you?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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