OK, here's the scene:
A flight is heading from Greece to Lithuania, flying over Belarus. The pilots get notification of a bomb threat. A fighter jet forces the plane to land. A couple of passengers are then detained by Belarusian authorities.
This isn't a plot point in an action film. And there was no bomb.
Yesterday, Ryanair Flight 4978 was intercepted and one of the passengers detained was 26-year-old Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich. The operation was reportedly approved by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a man referred to as "Europe's last dictator."
This evening in Belarus, a new video was released of Protasevich after his arrest, posted initially on a pro-government Belarusian channel.
In the video, Protasevich says he is in good health and is being treated well. Possibly under duress, he also confesses to plotting riots in Minsk — crimes that carry a 15-year penalty. His forehead appears bruised in the video.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian human rights activist and politician who ran as the main opposition candidate in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, shared the video on Twitter:
The regime's propaganda channels posted a video of arrested Raman Pratasevich, saying that he is treated lawfully in the Minsk Detention Center №1. This is how Raman looks under physical and moral pressure. I demand the immediate release of Raman and all political prisoners. pic.twitter.com/zdolsbp6m5— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) May 24, 2021
The European Union has found itself at the center of this situation. RyanAir is headquartered in Ireland. The plane was registered in Poland. The flight was going from Greece to Lithuania. Today, heads of EU states met to discuss potential sanctions.
Katia Glod, a Belarus analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis, joined The World's host Carol Hills, from London, to share the latest insights on this operation and what it means for global politics.
Carol Hills: First of all, who is Roman Protasevich?
Katia Glod: Roman Protasevich is a Belarusian journalist, the famous blogger. Roman is a founder of the very popular Telegram channel, which is called NEXTA, which was behind mass protests in Belarus, which erupted last August. And Roman Protasevich, at the time, he was part of this NEXTA team. Nowadays, he is the editor of another very popular Telegram [messaging app] channel called "Belarus of the Brain," which has several hundred thousand subscribers, and is also very widely read in Belarus.
Why did Alexander Lukashenko approve this brazen operation?
Well, first of all, we have to realize that Lukashenko is a very revengeful person. He has been well-known for taking revenge against his opponents. And NEXTA, obviously, displayed Lukashenko and the regime, the security services, to a great extent, because, as I've just said, they mobilized people to organize protests. Another reason is an attack on mass media, which we have seen in Belarus basically since last summer.
Now that Protasevich is in Belarusian custody, what is likely to happen tohim?
Well, he's likely to face up to 15 years in prison. The likely charges are [going] to be organizing public disorder and also stoking social strife. So, that means that he's currently somewhere at the KGB prison or one of the detention facilities in Minsk. We know that his girlfriend was transported to one of the detention facilities in Minsk, the so-called Okrestina prison, which became very famous during the August protest, because this is where tortures and beatings of many protesters happened.
You mentioned the mass protests against Lukashenko last summer. They were followed by a harsh government crackdown that continues to this day. Does this arrest change anything for Belarusians who oppose Lukashenko?
Unfortunately, it doesn't change much for Belarusians inside Belarus. It's that perhaps more people will be thinking about immigrating, and leaving the country obviously creates another international precedent. It puts the Belarusian regime onto a new level of priority. If, for example, we can say that before, Belarus has been more of a moral issue, a moral dilemma, particularly for the European Union, it was not nice that human rights have been abused in Belarus or that the elections were rigged, but it has not really until now affected directly the rights of European citizens. Yesterday's incident has shown that now Lukashenko's regime became a real threat to international norms, and real threats to European security. And Belarusians inside Belarus do hope that the West could take tougher sanctions against the regime.
It's interesting, President Lukashenko had to know that the world would harshly condemn him for doing this. And he knew of this and he did it anyway. What does that tell you?
Well, it tells us that the regime has lost control of political thinking, that the regime is really waging a war because its goal [is] only to stay in power, regardless by which means. It tells us that the regime is not prepared to negotiate with the opposition or with the West and that it's not backing off.
What role might Russia have here? Do you think Russian governmentofficials were in the loop on this?
We do know that there were actually four people who did not board the flight back to Vilnius. And apart from or Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, there were two Russian citizens. And the speculation is that either they were Belarusian KGB or that they were Russian FSB agents. And perhaps that Russia lent a helping hand to Belarus. Well, either way, Russia would not be the country that would try to punish Belarus or would try to tell it that that's not the right way forward.
How do you think the United States should respond to this event?
So far, we have seen only a statement of Mr. Blinken, who obviously condemned the situation and said that there should be given an adequate response. I think it will be a real test to the unity between the US and the European Union — whether the US will join the European Union in offering a very tough stance against the behavior of the Belarus regime.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.