What is the rationale and impact behind the closure of the Belarusian embassy in Ottawa? 

There are several likely reasons behind the closure of the Belarusian embassy in Ottawa. Primary among them is that Belarus is struggling economically, and they probably can’t afford to keep up an embassy in Ottawa. There’s also very little bilateral trade between Canada and Belarus.

Belarus was subject to Canadian sanctions in the mid 2000’s and those were only lifted a few years ago, so there’s not been much opportunity to engage in trade since then. There was some cooperation with Belarusian IT firms, but they’ve all packed up and moved to either Poland or Lithuania due to the regime’s ongoing repression. There’s also this slow-motion annexation of Belarus by the Kremlin—whereby the Putin regime has taken control of key aspects of the Lukashenka regime. It’s seeming more and more that Lukashenka is seceding control to Vladimir Putin.

I should also mention that Canada also has no permanent presence in Minsk – it runs things between Kyiv and Warsaw. Unfortunately, this also means that there is limited Canadian expertise on Belarus at Global Affairs. The greatest impact may be felt by diaspora Belarusians who may now be limited in their ability to participate in elections or have a location to protest at. Although recent Belarusian pro-democracy protests in Canada took place in front of the Russian embassy and consulates.

Why was Roman Protasevich detained and how can this latest incident be interpreted within the wider context of the Lukashenko regime? What is the significance? 

Roman Protasevich was detained because he is a highly effective independent journalist and a cofounder of NEXTA—a social media-based news outlet that was and is critical to informing Belarusians about the regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests last summer. NEXTA allowed Belarusians to upload videos and photos of protests, and regime abuses against the protestors to NEXTA’s social media channel, which aggregated them and published them through its channel on Telegram.

It’s important to note that independent journalists in Belarus have mostly been either arrested or have fled the country into exile, like Roman Protasevich. Over the past years, the Lukashenka regime has arrested over 35,000 people. Fifty people remain missing, several have been killed and hundreds remain in prison. One opposition leader recently died after a significant head injury in prison, while another attempted to commit suicide in court after his family was threatened by the regime.

Roman Pratasevich’s effectiveness and the effectiveness of NEXTA, represent an existential threat to Alexander Lukashenko and the officials who support him. [This] explains why Lukashenko resorted to hijacking a European civilian airliner. The message that this is intended to send to other critics, opposition leaders, and independent journalists is that we will find you and we will get you no matter where you are. It’s political intimidation and is part of a growing trend of transnational repression that’s being undertaken by regimes like the one in Belarus.

What are the implications of a government grounding an international flight? What can we expect from the UN aviation body’s investigation? 

[Recently], a Russian human rights activist, Andrey Pivovarov was removed from a flight that was scheduled to leave St. Petersburg and detained. Let’s not forget that Russian anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny was poisoned last summer just before boarding a flight to Moscow from Tomsk by Russian agents. The hope was of course, that Navalny would not receive medical attention while 30,000 feet up in the air and that he would die.

This latest incident by Belarus is clearly a hijacking and it’s even been called an act of state piracy by many Western leaders. It’s important to call it for what it is. Based on civil aviation regulations, it appears that Lukashenko has clearly contravened international laws. What happened in this case was that the regime claimed that Hamas had emailed a bomb threat demanding a ceasefire to ground controllers in Minsk—not Athens, where the flight originated, nor Vilnius, it’s destination. Hamas quickly denied this and journalist Michael Weiss discovered that the timestamp on the email indicated it had been sent after the Ryanair aircraft was ordered to land.

The Lukashenko regime used the fake bomb threat to justify ordering the flight to land in Minsk. Lukashenko then personally ordered a fully armed MiG29 fighter aircraft to intercept the flight in order to force it to land. Once it landed, Roman Protasevich was of course removed, with his girlfriend, and detained. It seems that he was tortured ahead of a forced confession that was broadcast on Belarusian state television and YouTube.

The Ryanair pilot had no choice but to land his aircraft. According to international civil aviation regulations, a commercial pilot must follow instructions when intercepted by military aircraft. At the moment, it’s hard to see how the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization might respond given that international civil aviation laws never anticipated that a foreign government would engage in aviation piracy, hijacking or terror. It’s also important to note that the ICAO has no power to apply sanctions.

The ICAO has also proven susceptible to foreign influence and intimidation—and has repeatedly sided with regimes like the Government of China, in keeping Taiwan out of the organization based on Beijing’s geopolitical demands and goals. That said, legal experts have weighed in saying that Lukashenko’s actions do contravene the Chicago and Montreal civil aviation conventions, which Belarus is a signatory to. Apparently, the Ryanair aircraft was registered in Warsaw, which would give Poland the opportunity to launch proceedings against the Lukashenko regime. The UN Security Council could play a role in holding Belarus to account, but Russia would likely veto that. In any case, we can be certain that Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran are watching how this plays out very closely.

In your opinion, will these latest sanctions and restrictions enforce a change in the behaviour of the Lukashenko regime? 

In short, no. Fifty-five Belarusian officials have already been sanctioned since last summer’s fraudulent Presidential elections, and it’s hard to see who might yet be affected by targeted individual sanctions. It’s also safe to assume that any Lukashenko regime officials with assets abroad have moved them out of Western states. What is required now are more aggressive sanctions that target key Belarusian companies that generate revenue both for the regime and its leaders. This includes potash and energy companies—which are both key sources of revenue for Lukashenko.

Western governments should also consider banning any trade in Belarusian bonds and sovereign debt. This would place significant economic stress on the regime. Western nations could also terminate Belarus’ ability to access the SWIFT international banking system. This would severally limit the regime’s ability to engage in any banking transactions—including the simple use of credit cards or most forms of electronic banking.

We might also think about targeting sanctions on Russian oligarchs who support the Putin and Lukashenko regimes. They are the pursers who hold the assets of these leaders. Ultimately, sanctions should be throttled in order to affect change in regime behavior—this could include a change in leadership if the sanctions are painful enough for those that enable dictators like Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin.

Is it possible that the latest sanctions on the regime could push Belarus closer to its biggest ally, Russia? What are the consequences of a closer partnership between these countries?  

When we look at Putin’s objectives in Belarus, we need to keep in mind, that Vladimir Putin’s primary geopolitical objective is the reconstitution of the Soviet Union. He needs this to reinforce his domestic political legitimacy and project strength. The current instability in Belarus is an excellent opportunity in this context and one that Putin is taking full advantage of—with the ultimate objective of slowly annexing Belarus into Putin’s Russia.

In the Belarusian context, let me be very clear, it is not Western sanctions that have motivated Lukashenko to embrace Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko needs an ally who will protect him from his own people and who will tolerate and materially support his mass repression and terror. This is what Vladimir Putin offers him. Lukashenko’s objective at the moment—much like Vladimir Putin’s – is to stay in power and simply stay alive.

Vladimir Putin will help him achieve that, but there will be a cost, and that will be the sovereignty of Belarus. This is already happening. Lukashenko handed over control of his state media to Russian state media operators from Russia Today or RT as it’s known last year. Russian operatives are also said to be setting up fake opposition political parties to run in upcoming elections to provide the façade of democracy—just as Putin has done inside Russia.

For the West it is simply impossible to condone or tolerate Lukashenka’s behavior and we cannot and should not compete with Vladimir Putin’s efforts to prop up Lukashenko. The West must do all it can to support and protect Belarusian civil society, independent media, pro-democracy opposition, and human rights activists; with the hope that they might one day displace the repressive tyranny that is being imposed by Lukashenko with the support of Vladimir Putin.

Exiled opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said that diversion of the flight was a direct result of Western democracies, like Canada, not taking strong enough action against the regime. Minister Garneau expressed that Canada would continue working with its partners to ensure accountability for those undermining democracy. How is Canada responding to this incident and what more can we do to address transnational repression? 

When Western democracies fail to impose costs on such behavior—like mass repression, human rights abuses, and the violation of international laws and norms—then there is little reason for regimes like those in Minsk, Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing to not to engage in it. Svetlana Tikhanouskaya is correct, that the absence of serious consequences enabled Lukashenko to hijack a civilian airliner, putting hundreds of lives at risk, to capture and silence a critic of his regime.

Neither Lukashenko or Vladimir Putin are particularly worried about how concerned or outraged Canada or any of our allies are about their criminal behavior, or their export of repression and terror. A strongly worded statement or Tweet is simply not an effective deterrent against this sort of transnational repression. It may make Western officials feel good for checking off a box and signaling that they are paying attention, but it does not help the activists and critics who are the victims of repression and intimidation.

As I mentioned earlier these repressive regimes are closely watching how Canada and its allies react to this hijacking. If we do not take significant action, this will signal a green light for Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing to do the same, resulting in the further erosion of international rule of law. The Putin regime has engaged in reckless transnational political repression and violence for years. We saw this already in 2006 when Russian whistleblower, Alexander Litvenenko was poisoned with a highly radioactive substance in a London restaurant by Russian government agents—one of whom has been appointed to the Russian Duma by Vladimir Putin. In 2018, we witnessed the Skripal poisoning, undertaken by two Russian GRU agents, where a British bystander was killed.

Transnational repression is not limited to Russia. China, has of course, detained three Canadians to advance their interests – Hussein Celil in 2006, and Michael Spavor and Kovrig, who have been imprisoned now for over 900 days. In the case of Russia, we need to start sanctioning the billionaire oligarchs who act as Vladimir Putin’s pursers—banning them from travelling to Western nations and seizing their assets—including corporations controlled by them with assets in Canada. The same should be done with Chinese officials.

We should also update our own Magnitsky legislation and introduce US-style reporting and expansion of our own lists. We might also consider a proposal by former Canadian foreign Minister Lloyd Axeworthy and Justice Minister Alan Rock, who have suggested redistributing those assets that are seized under Magnitsky legislation to benefit the victims of those regimes. In any case, we need to start introducing meaningful costs and consequences for the transnational repression that these regimes are engaging in. Without imposing costs, we have no hope of deterring motivated leaders like Alexander Lukashenko from engaging in human rights abuses.           

 

Marcus Kolga is an international award winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, digital communications strategist, and a leading Canadian expert on Russian and Central and Eastern European issues. Marcus has a focus on communications and media strategies as tools of foreign policy and defence, and continues to write commentary for national and international media including the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star. He is the co-founder and publisher of UpNorth.eu, an online magazine that features analysis and political and cultural news from the Nordic and Baltic region.

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