The hijack of Ryanair Flight FR4978 on 23 May by the Belarusian air force on the explicit instructions of dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka was both awful and horrific.
Awful for the passengers suddenly diverted to Minsk and held on the ground for five hours. Horrific for Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega, as they suddenly realized they faced certain torture, imprisonment, and possibly death. For Western governments seeing a European Union (EU) -registered plane traveling between two EU and NATO capitals forced down by the air force of an authoritarian dictator, and two EU-protected residents pulled off, incarcerated, and tortured should ring alarm bells.
These actions by Lukashenka are not merely a breach of international flight rules. The effect is to undermine the rules-based international order, so that even the commonly accepted rules of global travel can be set aside at the whim of an autocrat. The risk of this act becoming a precedent is high — future flights could be hijacked and passengers held hostage for long periods; China could use it to pluck aircraft flying over the South China Sea, citing its unlawful claims to the area.
The Western response must recognize the scale of the threat posed to our values and the lives, and the safety of our own citizens. The European Council took a first step on 25 May by deciding to prohibit flights across Belarus and more will follow.
However, one has to ask whether such sanctions will really impact Lukashenka and his inner circle? Will any sanctions imposed by the EU, U.S. and UK strike fear into the heart of the authoritarians in Belarus, and thereafter to Russian and China with sufficient impact to deter future acts of this magnitude?
Yet there are steps that can be taken that would make the West’s disapproval very clear, and which would inflict serious pain on Lukashenka and worry his authoritarian friends.
The starting point is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was so clearly elected head of state by the Belarusian people in August 2020. The evidence of result-rigging by Lukashenka’s bureaucracy is overwhelming. It follows that the West can take steps to support and empower President Tsikhanouskaya, with the ultimate aim of creating a viable democratic state structure outside Belarus, which has the popular support and legitimacy that Lukashenka’s regime lacks.
The West would support the establishment of a full governmental structure around President Tsikhanouskaya, including a presidential administration, parliament, and government departments. With full recognition would come the right to issue passports and have diplomatic recognition with EU member states, the EU itself, the UK, the U.S., and others.
Western governments could also give all Belarusian citizens the right of residence in particular, given its proximity the EU, member states would grant the right of residence and EU free movement to all Belarusians. In addition, Belarusian citizens in Western states could elect to pay taxes to the democratic government of Belarus rather than in the host Western state.
Belarus would then have a democratically elected government, recognized by Western states, and a taxpaying electorate. Further funds might come from regime assets frozen in the West. An entity able to hold elections, undertake democratic political debate, provide welfare, education and social support (perhaps even running a public broadcaster for news) would be Lukashenka’s worst nightmare. Such a democratic government with its own electorate and funding, institutional structures, and international support would not be going anywhere. It would be a permanent threat and challenge to the regime.
There are already approximately 1.5 million Belarusian citizens outside Belarus, with approximately 9.5 million in Belarus. The likelihood is that with Western, and especially EU residence and free movement rights on offer, that number would grow significantly. The young, the most talented, and entrepreneurial will leave. The regime would be further weakened financially as the tax base eroded forcing Lukashenka to go once again cap in hand to Putin.
The West can turn the financial screw further by targeting two classes of assets. First, Belarusian state assets in the West. These would be identified, frozen, and transferred to President Tsikhanouskaya’s government. Second, the booty taken from the Belarusian people by Lukashenka and his inner elite. Unlike in Russia, there is no oligarch class, just the Lukashenka family and friends. The West could undertake a major operation to identify, freeze and seize the assets and turn them over to President Tsikhanouskaya’s government. Such an operation would hurt Lukashenka personally and directly. It would also weaken him politically, as the evidence of self-enrichment emerged.
Such a Western response would send a broader message to all authoritarians. There are steps we can take and which you will not like. Our values are more attractive than your values. We can empower the people in your states so they can live better lives than you can ever offer them. And we can seize the assets you have salted away in the West and hand them over to their true owners. Such a message would be heard loud and clear in Russia and China.