EU agrees on sanctions following the arrest of an independent journalist by Belarus

The heads of state and government of the European Union agreed on May 24 to impose sanctions on Belarus in response to the emergency landing of a passenger plane and the subsequent arrest of opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, including a ban on Belarusian airlines, the airspace or the airports of the 27 EU member states. At a meeting in Brussels just one day after the hijacking of the Ryanair jetliner that flew from Greece to Lithuania, EU leaders also imposed sanctions on individual Belarusian leaders, calling on the International Civil Aviation Organization to launch a comprehensive investigation , and demanded the immediate release of Pratasevich and his Russian friend Sofia Sapega, who were also taken off the flight.

“This is an attack on freedom of expression. And that is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behavior needs a strong response, ”said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Executive Commission of the European Commission. She added that a proposed EU economic investment package of € 3 billion will remain pending until the Belarusian government under President Alexander Lukashenko “becomes democratic”. EU Council leader Charles Michel, who chaired the meeting, said the organization would “not tolerate trying to play Russian roulette with the lives of innocent civilians”. United States leaders also showed their opposition to the detention, with President Joe Biden reiterating calls for Pratasevich’s release and several government officials signing a joint statement calling on Biden to ban US airlines from entering Belarusian airspace.

While all sanctions from the EU and the international community are generally welcome, the focus on sanctions that apply only to air travel seems too simple, with one exception, which threatens to curb broad economic investment. However, Pratasevich colleagues told the BBC they feared for his life, and in a statement to the Belarusian National Assembly on Wednesday, President Lukashenko retained his authority to divert the plane, calling it a necessary measure to protect his country. This dichotomy between the power of a regional institution like the EU and a sovereign nation is strongly reminiscent of the precariousness of human rights under authoritarian regimes within the current state-based international order. Apart from military actions that would further endanger innocent victims of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus, the EU seems to have little to do, especially when Lukashenko sees this stalemate with the international community as a referendum on his power. While long, tough economic sanctions could cause Lukashenko to change his mind, most of the damage would be done to civilians who may already be against the regime.

Pratasevich was most recently seen in a hostage-style video broadcast on state television earlier last week in which he said he was in good health and described his arrest and treatment in detention as “maximally correct and lawful,” though those close to him Pratasevich and the wider international community immediately rejected the video as being coerced. Pratasevich is a renowned journalist who, as an editor at NEXTA, a Poland-based independent media organization with opposition Belarusian journalists who reach Belarus via the social media app Telegram, has organized massive pro-democratic protests against Lukashenko. The Lukashenko regime, which has been in power since 1994 broad record Suppress freedom of expression and free elections. In response to the situation, Stepan Putilo, founder of NEXTA and a close friend of Pratasevich said, “If the regime cares enough about crashing Roman’s plane, then we’re doing something right and will keep fighting.”

If the overriding goal of EU interventions and sanctions in Belarus is the return of free and fair elections to the country, the contribution to the release of Pratasevich is an important guiding principle, as the journalist symbolizes an alternative to Lukashenko’s autocratic rule, in which the freedom of the Support for the press, assembly and freedom of expression include democratic self-government. For the same reason, Lukashenko can defy even the toughest sanctions, although a state-sanctioned murder of Pratasevich could make him a martyr and spark the biggest protest movement of all time under the Lukashenko regime. One of the positive signs for Pratasevich in the future is an international community that, in lockstep, condemns this crackdown on dissidents, with the exception of Lukashenko’s close ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, if Belarus is able to fend off international pressure, it could signal to other authoritarians around the world that there are far more advantages than disadvantages to keeping silent about dissent.

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