On Sunday 23 May we are told that “The strongman president of Belarus sent a fighter jet to intercept a European airliner traveling through the country’s airspace and ordered the plane to land in the capital, Minsk, where a prominent opposition journalist aboard was then seized, provoking international outrage.” (Belarus forces down plane to seize dissident; Europe sees ‘state hijacking’ by Anton Troianovki and Ivan Nechepurenko, New York Times, 23 May 2021)
The ‘prominent opposition journalist’ in question, who was indeed arrested after the plane landed in Minsk along with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, was a young person named Roman Protasevich, who, it turns out, is not just a journalist but was a major organiser of last year’s large anti-government demonstrations. Protasevich is believed to have organised and encouraged intimidation and threats against government supporters, including the publication of the names and addresses of police officers.
At any rate, the imperialist bourgeoisie and their media responded with predictable Shock and Horror! “Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said Belarus had used control of its airspace to perpetrate a ‘state hijacking’.
“‘This is an attack on democracy; this is an attack on freedom of expression; and this is an attack on European sovereignty. This outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer.’” (EU agrees sanctions on Belarus for forcing down flight by Michael Peel, Sam Fleming and James Shotter, Financial Times, 25 May 2021)
The European Union, enthusiastically applauded by the USA, rushed to impose sanctions, banning the flights of the Belarusian national airline from EU airspace and airports, and ordering EU airlines to stop overflying Belarusian territory (an order that has since been condemned by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) as compromising aircraft safety). Meanwhile, an aide to Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, in their anxiety to punish the people of Belarus for supporting President Alexander Lukashenko rather than themselves in last year’s election, demanded sanctions be imposed also on the country’s lucrative oil and potash sectors.
The back story
It is important to understand the context in which the above events occurred. These are explained by the Communist Party of Belarus as follows:
“Against the essence of the new global problems, acting on purpose and consequently, capital plunges entire countries and regions into financial and economic dependence, which subsequently leads to political subordination. These actions have already received the name of hybrid warfare, as well as neocolonialism, when states that previously obtained independence are once again under the control of global financial groups by military and economic means.
“In 2020, Belarus experienced various forms of hybrid warfare and ‘new colonialism’, and was subjected to unprecedented external pressure, which has continued to this day. The centres of emigrants abroad present this as a revolution waged by the people when, in fact, it is a counterrevolutionary rebellion that seeks to eliminate the political leadership of the country and lead to the collapse of an independent social state.
“Why can’t the events in Belarus be called a revolution? Any revolution has both objective and subjective prerequisites, and there are no such constitutive prerequisites of a revolutionary situation in the country. In turn, the revolution is a process of disintegration of the old system and its replacement by a progressive formation.
“In Belarus, there are attempts to dismantle the progressive social model, closer to socialism in its characteristics, and replace it with a savage capitalism under the slogans of anticommunism, anti-Sovietism, nationalism and Russophobia. The driving force behind the counterrevolutionary insurgency is made up of elements of the so-called national bourgeoisie, which wants more influence in decision-making and is in collusion with external forces pursuing their own geopolitical goals in Belarus.
“The destabilisation campaign organised by the west as a whole and its support groups within the country has been going on for about a year and has several main stages.
“In the initial (electoral) stage, it declared that the government was criminal and that the results of the presidential elections had been rigged beforehand. As soon as the vote was over, without waiting for the results, it organised massive riots in the capital and regional centres.
“The main participants in the riots were neo-nazi, nationalist and anticommunist groups, together with criminal elements whose objectives were to seize power, dismantle the social welfare state, persecute communism, privatise, restore the symbols of the Nazi state and sever relations with the Russian Federation.
“After the failure of the electoral stage, which had included attempts to organise strikes that did not have the support of the workers, some activists openly turned to preparing terrorist attacks, terror and sabotage against President AG Lukashenko and representatives of public authorities and their supporters.
“Following the example of the Ukrainian ‘Maidan self-defence‘, they tried to organise decentralised criminal groups in the various districts of the capital and large cities. Law enforcement agencies detained several dozen battle groups that were at different stages of the plan’s implementation. One of them had managed to import explosives and weapons from the territory of Ukraine, where fighting is taking place.
“At the same time, some radical groups were directly coordinated through the Ukrainian neo-Nazi movement – the so-called ‘Belarusian volunteers’ – who provided material and organisational assistance in the preparation of the groups, providing them with bases and the possibility of retreating to the territory of Ukraine.
“However, these overt subversive activities did not find support either among the population, who supported the legitimate government, or even among that part of the opposition that was unwilling to support and finance terrorism. As a result, both the externally-controlled protest movement and the domestic illegal groups failed in their objectives.
“Subsequently, the third stage of diplomatic and economic pressure on the government was organised and sanctions were adopted. Right now, a number of opposition structures calling themselves ‘legitimate governing bodies’ are operating from abroad, within the jurisdiction of the European Union, but under the control of US emissaries.
“There are at least two emigre centres in Poland and Lithuania, from which diplomatic activities related to attempts to impose new sanctions against our country are coordinated. They are trying to achieve internal destabilisation by reducing the income and the standard of living of the population.
“As Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko pointed out, on this occasion, foreign intelligence services have moved from organising street riots to the strangulation stage: ‘The search is underway to find new vulnerabilities, and it is not directed only against us. We are a testing ground for them, an experimental platform before heading east …’
“Of course, foreign structures are not satisfied with the fact that the social situation in Belarus remains stable; businesses, the social sphere functions as usual, and law enforcement agencies provide security. And so, the United States, Great Britain and the American satellite countries in eastern Europe resorted to the provocation of 23 May 2021, using a foreign plane to call for an air and economic blockade of the Republic.
The most active in this regard are Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine, which, in fact, have become operational centres for opposition actions.”
It must, therefore, be realised that the demonstrations that took place last year in Belarus, of which Protasevich was a major organiser, were not the peaceful walks in the park that are typical of demonstrations in this country but acts of subversion aimed at forcibly removing the country’s elected government. There is a world of difference!
For all that the various imperialist governments scream outrage at supposed attempts of foreign powers to influence elections in the imperialist countries, they themselves have no hesitation whatsoever in intervening in other countries, not only to influence elections but even to overturn their results if these are not those desired by imperialism. This is what happened in Ukraine, and this is what the imperialists are trying to achieve in Belarus.
What imperialists hope is to install a ‘friendly’ government in Belarus that will allow them to bring their aggressive military hardware right up to the Russian border. This is not a game that Lukashenko was prepared to play, so Lukashenko has to go.
What really happened
So, did President Lukoshenko really order a MiG fighter to meet up with the Ryanair passenger aircraft, as alleged by the imperialist media, to force it to land in Belarus just so his officers could arrest Protasevich?
Let us first point out that, had he done so, he would only have been following an example set by various imperialist powers or their client states!
“In 2016, a plane of Belarusian flag-carrier Belavia was forced to return after it took off from the Ukrainian capital Kiev for Minsk, close to the airspace boundary between Ukraine and Belarus. Ukrainian air traffic control ordered the plane to return without any explanation, according to a report by FlightGlobal, an aviation and aerospace news website.
“It was also stated that in the event of non-compliance with the order, fighters would be [sent to intercept],” FlightGlobal quoted the carrier as saying.
“An Armenian passenger, who reportedly opposed the Ukrainian government and its closer ties with Europe, was briefly arrested by police, and the plane was allowed to return …
“In 2013, President Evo Morales was forced to land in Austria when some European countries denied the plane of then-president of Bolivia entry into their airspace.
“Morales was traveling to Bolivia following a Moscow summit where he announced that he would grant asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden … Austria reportedly searched the plane for Snowden …
“In 2012, Turkish fighter jets forced a Syrian passenger plane, which was en route from Moscow to Damascus, to land at Esenboga Airport in the capital Ankara.
“Ankara suspected that the plane would be carrying weapons for the Syrian army. Turkey seized part of the plane’s cargo, and it was allowed to continue its flight to Damascus …
“In 1956, five senior members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) were on board a passenger plane en route to Tunisia from Rabat, Morocco. The French secret service sent fighter jets to intercept their plane and forced it to land in Algeria as it was then a French colony. Among the five people on board was Ahmed Ben Bella, who later become Algeria’s first president when it declared its independence.” (Belarus grounds plane with dissident, but history tells of more forced landings by Handan Kazanci, Anadolu Agency, 28 May 2021)
The fact of the matter, however, is that there was no forced landing in the Ryanair case. The Ryanair pilot, in consultation with his employers, personally decided to land in Minsk, even though his destination, Vilnius in Lithuania, was closer.
He made the decision after being advised by the Minsk airport authorities that they had received an email message in the following terms: “We, the Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza strip. We demand that the European Union renounce its support for Israel in this war …
“It is known that the participants of the Delfi Economic Forum return home on flight 4978. A bomb is planted in this plane. If you do not fulfil our demands, the bomb will explode on 23 May over Vilnius.”
It is a standing requirement that all such threats must be taken seriously, even if most turn out to be hoaxes. The Lithuanian pilot of the Ryanair plane decided to go to Minsk. It was his own decision that could not possibly have been dictated to him by anybody in Belarus.
Minsk, on being advised of his decision, mobilised considerable resources for dealing with the emergency should a bomb actually be detonated at or above the airport.
After the plane landed, the passengers all disembarked. The plane was searched, but no bomb was found. This being the case, it was suggested that the hoax email had been sent on Lukashenko’s orders. This, however, is extremely unlikely.
In the first place, the Belarusan authorities could not have known that Protasevich was a passenger on the plane; nor, of course, that on being told of the threat the pilot would choose to go to Minsk rather than Vilnius.
Secondly, the behaviour of the authorities in Minsk was inconsistent with their having any intention of arresting anyone: Protasevich disembarked from the plane at 2.02pm, joining a queue waiting to board airport buses. The buses left the plane at 2.22pm, arriving at the terminal building two minutes later. At 2.53pm Protasevich cleared customs.
In all that time, nobody came to arrest him. However, at 2.25pm a Mr Vechorko, a key figure at Tikhanovskaya’s HQ in Lithuania, posted the following message as ‘Breaking news’ on Instagram:
“The regime forced to land the Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius in order to detain the famous Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich. He faces the death penalty in Belarus. Belarus hijacked the plane, endangering passengers in order to repress the enemy.”
The speed with which this posting appears points quite unequivocally at the plane’s diversion having been expected and coming as no surprise. Naturally, all postings by the Belarusian opposition are diligently scrutinised by the Belarusian security forces and they thereafter lost no time in arresting Protasevich, who immediately realised he had been set up by Franak Vechorko, someone on his own side with whom he had differences of opinion but in whom he had confided his travel plans.
Briefing turns the tables
In response to the hysterical outcry in the imperialist media, the Belarusian authorities announced that a briefing would take place at the national press centre, attended by representatives of the aviation department, the state border committee, the investigative committee, the armed forces and the ministry of foreign affairs who would give a complete account of the Ryanair incident. What wasn’t announced was that Roman Protasevich himself would also be present.
He entered the hall looking fresh and cheerful, and very much in the mood to talk. Much to the chagrin of the imperialist media, Protasevich said he was being well treated, and certainly showed no signs to the contrary.
The reporters from the BBC (accompanied by some representatives of foreign embassies) just walked out in disgust as the entire narrative that they had been spinning was blown to the four winds by their darling Protasevich himself, who answered questions put to him by the journalists present.
With respect to his own treatmentm he stated: “I feel great, I have no complaints. I am ready to undergo any independent medical examination. I appeal to my colleagues: no one laid a finger on me. Don’t spread rumours.”
He made a point of saying he had no complaints whatsoever about his treatment in detention, saying he was regularly examined by a doctor and had even been offered to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. He denied that he was coerced into cooperating with the judicial investigators and said he was only being questioned in the presence of his defence lawyer.
Protasevich gave the clear impression that he disagreed fundamentally with many of his fellow dissidents as far as resort to terrorism was concerned, as well as accepting foreign funding.
At the end of the briefing, Roman Protasevich posed the journalists a political riddle. Having said that, since the conversation began with a joke, why not end it on the same wavelength? He offered to identify this person:
“It’s a person. This is a woman. A politician. She lives in one of the European countries. She urged not to pay taxes, not to recognise the ‘illegitimate government’, she called on the army to go over to her side, and also began to create an alternative government and embassies of her country. Who do you think this is?”
The audience thought about it. All parallels obviously fitted the famous Belarusian fugitive who settled in Vilnius (Svetlana Tikhanovskaya). But there was clearly a catch in the question. And so there was: Protasevich was speaking about Austria’s Monika Unger, who received 14 years in prison in 2019 for attempting a rebellion in her country. But Belarus, of course, is different ..!
At the press conference it was clarified that although a MiG fighter had indeed been scrambled, at no time did the plane come any closer than 55km to the Ryanair plane and was certainly not involved in forcing it to land.
Igor Golub, commander of the Belarus’s air force explained: “This jet was meant to control the correct flight path of the civil aircraft Boeing 737 to Minsk-2 airport according to the corridor, which was released to it by civil air traffic controllers, from the air alert zone.
“The second task was to assist in case of radio communication failure on board – and, it happens: what if there is a bomb, if communication is damaged? The crew on duty is obliged to help this plane with signals, with manoeuvres, to establish communication with the ground. The crew on duty would be the relay plane of this civilian aircraft in distress.
“And the third task is to cover the city of Minsk from an act of possible air terrorism. We have no information that there is no bomb, we have information that there is one. This is the task of the jet’s crew.”
Cementing the relationship between Belarus and Russia
“The EU had once hoped to draw Minsk from the Kremlin’s orbit, but that ambition appears doomed after Sunday’s events,” the Financial Times mournfully recalls.
And in fact, as could be expected, Russia has stepped up in President Lukashenko’s defence. For instance, it has been countering EU sanctions by refusing to allow some European flights to land in Russia if they have deviated from the route over Belarus previously agreed, and by cancelling some flights to Vilnius if Vilnius will refuse to accept them having flown over Belarus.
In addition, it is said that President Vladimir Putin is offering Belarus billions of dollars in Russian loans.
Destabilisation attempt backfires
In sum, the entire incident concerning the landing of the Ryanair flight in Minsk was nothing short of a staged provocation aimed at destabilising and overthrowing the elected government of President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
The Belarusan authorities behaved strictly in accordance with the rules and norms of international civil aviation. Had the various imperialist governments really been concerned with knowing the truth, their news organisations such as the BBC and their various diplomatic representatives would not so disgracefully have left the news conference at which their darling Protasevich so eloquently related the true story.
His appearance at the press conference obviously left them with egg on their faces and, instead of manfully taking it on the chin, they resorted to cowardice as the best way out, enabling them to continue to repeat the false and malicious propaganda that they had perpetrated and which has continued since then.
The Belarusan people, even those who might have been ambivalent about President Lukoshenko, have had their eyes well and truly opened.