Europe’s last dictator needs his wings clipped fast

What happened last night is not normal. President Lukashenko’s regime hijacked a passenger airliner as it flew over Belarusian airspace by faking a bomb threat on the plane to force it to divert to the capital of Minsk. Once landed, Belarusian officials promptly arrested a prominent opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, that had been travelling on the flight. Protasevich had not been back to Belarus since 2019, when he essentially fled the nation. His coverage of the 2020 Presidential election led to him being charged with terrorism and inciting riots.

As we really should come to expect, there have been a few horrendously bad takes on social media. One in particular suggested that those condemning Lukashenko would be applauding the UK if it conducted a similar operation against an enemy of the state. That may be the case, but it is also despicable to suggest that there is any comparison between what the UK might consider an enemy of the state – an actual terrorist for example – and a journalist. Even suggesting this downplays the severity of what Lukashenko’s regime has done.

Lukashenko’s reelection in 2020 was highly irregular and is considered to have been neither free nor fair by most observers and neighbouring countries. After all, how could it be when opposition candidates are prevented from standing through trumped up allegations of criminality and suffer threats of violence which force them to flee the country.

Indeed, in is not an exaggeration to say that we are watching as Lukashenko moves further into his role of “Europe’s last dictator”. His consolidation of power, control of Belarus and attacks on dissent have only grown since the 2020 election. That election spurred thousands onto the street to protest against the rigged result. Since then, there have been hundreds what Human Rights Watch calls “politically motivated criminal cases against political opposition members, protesters, and their supporters.” Many journalists covering the election and protests were detained, fined, beaten and deported after having their credentials stripped.

The suppression of opposition voices, the clampdown on dissent – especially independent or opposition journalists and the personal control of the state apparatus like the police and military are all textbook features of a dictatorship. Belarusian state media was triumphantly announcing that the operation to force down the civil aircraft was personally ordered by Lukashenko himself. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Protasevich was overheard by fellow passengers saying he feared the death penalty.

Rogue nations know that the West is becoming soft and are becoming far less hesitant in their actions. Our leaders are slow to react, and we often fail to go beyond the bare minimum response of strong words and highly limited sanctions.

Sanctions are always a good first step, especially if they start with Magnitsky-style sanctions on the senior individuals involved in the regimes. However, we really should start to consider actions that go further – greater moves to isolate these countries, such as closing down travel or increased restrictive measures on goods and services.

If this will ever be enough to force a rogue state into compliance remains to be seen – but being more robust in our response to hostile activity should be the start.

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