Online Discussion: Joerg Forbrig and Serge Kharytonau on air piracy by Belarus

Are the EU and the US doing enough?

24 May 2021

Video recording of the discussion on Belarusian air piracy and the response from the international community with Joerg Forbrig and Serge Kharytonau.

On 25 May, Visegrad Insight organised a discussion with Joerg Forbrig and Serge Kharytonau on the pressing issue of the hijacking of the Ryanair flight and the kidnapping of Roman Protasevich by Belarus. The shocking actions taken by Belarusian authorities to arrest one of the main opposition journalists living in exile evoked a strong initial response from the EU leaders but will this event lead to more sanctions put on Belarus?

In the discussion, we touched upon the international reaction to the recent events, Biden’s agenda for his visit to Europe in June and the resilience of Belarusian society after nearly 10 months of the protests. Also, is it still possible to save Roman Protasevich and what is the best way to do it?

Some of the main quotes from the speakers’ initial statements:

“Because of the de facto Martial Law we cannot expect the same protests as at the beginning of 2020, the protest mood is still there but had to move underground” – Serge Kharytonau

“People who fight against dictatorship with flowers on their heads do not have an equal position to those with guns and Putin’s support” – Serge Kharytonau

“Belarusian TV has been taken over by the regime as well as other forms of media, only the web still remained and now that will be the new target of the regime” – Serge Kharytonau

“The video of Roman Protasevich should be treated as any hostage video, in such a situation you will say anything to save your life, so I would not trust anything he says until he is free from custody” – Serge Kharytonau

“What’s happened is a war the Lukashenko regime has launched against his own people” – Joerg Forbrig

“It’s a junta style of treating your society” – Joerg Forbrig

“Our language is way too dry and technical and, therefore, abstract. By describing what the regime is doing domestically and now internationally as terror is fully appropriate” – Joerg Forbrig

“The terror inside Belarus resembles the terror in Poland in the 1980s, and this tells us that a lot of the changes we hope to see in Belarus rests with the external sponsor. In the 1980s in Poland, it was the Soviet Union and today in Belarus its Russia. It also tells us that we will see Belarus impoverished and the next challenge will be an economic one” – Joerg Forbrig

In the Q&A session that went off the record, speakers asserted that Western sanctions will not work without a clear goal of what they need to achieve before being lifted. As the best example, US sanctions on Belneftekhim in the late 2000s were mentioned that achieved the release of political prisoners at the time. The worst thing that can be done right now is allowing Lukashenko and his circles to run business as usual. The power vertical that Lukashenko built in the country relies on the officers’ loyalty to him in exchange for the promise of non-accountability and money. If only the foreign countries are able to remove both pillars, it will cause the regime to crack.

Speakers also stressed that in the case of a weak response from the Western governments in this situation, this will set a precedent for other autocrats that run stronger countries to bring down civilian airliners and arrest opposition leaders, critics and dissidents without the fear of repercussions. Belarusian democratic opposition living in exile needs to be reassured of their safety. This could mean providing better protection to individuals that are very exposed, reinforcing security for the organisations and media outlets whether through digital or analogue measures, and making sure that people can travel in an unhindered way without harassment from Interpol merely because Lukashenko put them on their list.

Our speakers:

Serge Kharytonau, Expert at the International Strategic Action Network for Security in Belarus and a journalist.

Joerg Forbrig, Senior Fellow and Director for Central and Eastern Europe at Berlin office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.


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