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Last August, months before President Biden won his have presidential vote, he took a stand over Belarus. The Eastern European nation was starting to scrutinize a wave of protests after what opposition groups and international observers alleged was a stolen election by the country’s long-ruling president, Alexander Lukashenko. At the time, anger over the rigged vote had fueled an remarkable political mobilization within the country and a stage of solidarity across the continent for these clamoring for change and the exit of a man long-dubbed “Europe’s last dictator.”
President Donald Trump, although, was conspicuously muted in his response to the situation — a reflection now now not suitable of his weird soft problem for autocrats in former Soviet states, nevertheless also the looming likelihood at the time that he too may very neatly be involved in shenanigans to manipulate his have country’s election outcomes. (The Trump administration would later slap sanctions on Belarus officials and state companies.) Biden, although, denounced the “assaults on democracy” carried out by the Lukashenko administration and vowed principled action if elected.
“My administration may perhaps now now not ever skittish away from standing up for democratic principles and human rights, and we are able to work with our democratic allies and partners to speak with one scream in demanding these rights be respected,” he wrote.
Since coming to office, the Biden administration renewed sanctions on Belarus, including blocking transactions with nine major Belarus oil and petrochemical companies. It also placed sanctions on 109 govt officials linked to its campaigns of repression. Nevertheless occasions over the weekend may mean this may face tension to earn considerably more durable.
On Sunday, in what appears to be part of a wider crackdown on opposition activists and independent media, authorities in Belarus took the dramatic step of intercepting a civilian airliner carrying a prominent dissident with a MiG-29 fighter jet and forcing it to divert to the country’s capital Minsk. Upon landing, the journalist Roman Protasevich was seized by Belarus officials. The Ryanair flight had left the Greek capital Athens and was headed to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Various irate European leaders cast the interruption of its flight path as a “hijacking,” an “act of terrorism” and grounds for additional punishment of an already isolated regime.
“Protasevich, 26, ran the popular social media Telegram channel Nexta, which uncovered Belarusian police brutality during the anti-govt demonstrations last year. The channel and its sister channel, Nexta Dwell, have shut to 2 million subscribers,” my colleagues Isabelle Khurshudyan and Michael Birnbaum explained. “In November, he was added to a list of individuals purportedly involved in terrorist activities.”
Protasevich, who has been living in exile in Vilnius, now faces more than 12 years in prison.
According to Nexta’s editor in chief Tadeusz Giczan, Belarus secret agents boarded the plane in Athens and, as soon as over their country’s airspace, proceeded to intimidate the airline’s pilot and staff about a supposed bomb threat. The plane was far closer to Vilnius than Minsk, the Flightradar24 online page reveals, nevertheless was nonetheless compelled to reveal around. The flight eventually took off for the Lithuanian capital without Protasevich.
The incident raised alarms across Europe, each over its brazen nature as neatly as its wider implications for regional air travel. No longer unlike his counterparts in Russia, Lukashenko demonstrated that his political opponents are now now not safe even in de facto exile. In recent weeks, authorities in Minsk have raided the offices and studios of a number of media retailers producing coverage critical of Lukashenko and his associates, as neatly as taking offline a leading independent news place.
Belarus is normally entrance and heart during discussions at a Monday meeting of the European Council, where continental leaders are anticipated to push for new punitive measures against the Lukashenko regime. Former European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted that the Belarus leader was “a threat now now not only to his have voters nevertheless also to international safety. His act of state terrorism demands an immediate and now now not easy reaction of all European governments and institutions.”
“The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an remarkable, shocking act,” Greek Top Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, declaring “satisfactory is satisfactory.”
The Biden administration also indicated its stable disapproval. In a statement Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. “strongly condemns” the flight diversion as neatly as “the Lukashenka regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists.”
“We are intently coordinating our response with our parters, including the EU and Lithuanian and Greek officials,” read the statement, which called for Protasevich’s immediate release.
Nevertheless what happens next is tricky, now now not least as Biden prepares for a that you can think of meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month. Faced with intensifying European tension, Lukashenko may turn to Moscow for greater enhance and safety, a walk that may be able to scrutinize tighter safety and political integration between the two international locations. That’s bad news for ordinary voters in Belarus desperate to possess a real democracy. It also additional complicates matters for a Biden administration that’s already taking flak from the fair for now now not doing more to stymie the growth of a major Russian-backed natural gas pipeline to Europe.
In Washington, a number of think tanks have laid out coverage proposals for a more assertive approach on Belarus by the Biden administration. Past new sanctions and more sturdy safety cooperation with Belarus’s European neighbors, they advised Biden to consult with Lukashenko as the country’s former president, to flit at the State Department the weak pink-white Belarus flag popular with anti-Lukashenko protesters, and to invite leading opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to the White Condominium.
A Washington Put up editorial also called for additional action against Russia and greater efforts to offer protection to activists and newshounds in the crosshairs of autocratic regimes. “The Biden administration need to spend leverage contained in legislation passed by Congress to sanction any Russians who assist with the Belarus crackdown,” The Put up neatly-known. “Meanwhile, Ms. Tikhanovskaya has suggested that all these who persecute journalists wants to be targeted for sanctions.”
Specialists warn, although, that the West has restricted leverage. Earlier in the crisis, Russia extracted vague commitments from Lukashenko to enact constitutional reform and modernize the country’s political intention. Nevertheless that was seemingly window dressing for a regime that presides over an increasingly polarized nation break up between its supporters and dogged, embattled opponents.
“This atmosphere of a cool civil war is now now not only causing Lukashenko to transform more repressive, nevertheless also to position off indefinitely the political reform promised to Moscow, or to attain it purely for point to,” wrote Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “With de-escalation becoming almost very unlikely, society becoming polarized, and fewer and fewer of us prepared to forgive the regime, the likelihood is growing of the Belarusian crisis seeing yet another spontaneous escalation of violence.”