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Ryanair flight’s forced landing in Minsk and Protasevich’s arrest as seen from Poland

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To catch an opponent, Lukashenko hijacked a Polish plane,” was the headline on the website of the leading newspaper of the Polish liberal left, Gazeta Wyborcza, on Sunday, May 23. The Ryanair plane used for the Athens–Vilnius flight that day is indeed “one of 27 aircraft owned by Buzz (formerly Ryanair Sun), a Polish-registered airline owned by the Ryanair group,” the newspaper explained. “At 10 a.m. local time on Sunday, it took off from Athens bound for the Lithuanian capital. When the plane arrived over Lida in Belarus, near the border with Lithuania, air traffic control ordered the pilots to turn back to Minsk because of a bomb threat. The Boeing was escorted by a Belarusian fighter plane.

This diversion to Minsk led to the arrest of Roman Protasevich, “founder and former editor of the opposition channel Nexta, which provides detailed coverage of the anti-presidential protests in Belarus (which broke out in August 2020 after Alexander Lukashenko rigged the presidential election).” However, the Polish newspaper explains further, “planes are a territory of the countries in which they were registered. Therefore, it can be considered that the operation by which the plane carrying Protasevich was diverted to Minsk was in fact an abduction of a Belarusian citizen on Polish territory. ”

That is why, as the conservative pro-PiS newspaper Gazeta Polska codziennie wrote in its May 25 edition, “Poland demands the suspension of EU flights to Belarus – this was the position presented yesterday by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the extraordinary European Council summit in Brussels. The Polish Prosecutor General has also initiated proceedings concerning the action taken by the Belarusian authorities (the plane was registered in Poland) by ordering an investigation into the case of the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk. ”

The e-mail about the bomb supposed to be on board the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday was sent after the aircraft had already been diverted to Minsk, Swiss company Proton Technologies AG said. The Belarusian authorities had identified the e-mail as the reason for diverting the plane.” This information could be read on May 27 in the centrist newspaper Rzeczpospolita, which asked as early as May 25: “Who are the Russians who got off the Ryanair plane in Minsk?

The Polish newspaper continued: “Some experts strongly doubt that Belarusian KGB agents alone are capable of tracking Roman Protasevich to Greece. ‘For an operation like this, you need an extensive network of agents abroad and good communications to make decisions quickly. And Nexta is a common enemy,’ said a man with ties to Russian intelligence to explain why he believes the FSB was involved in the blogger’s abduction. The airline itself pointed to four passengers on the flight from Athens, Russian citizens, who stayed in Minsk and did not continue on to Vilnius. Russian opponents and investigative journalists concluded that it was a group of FSB agents who had followed the Belarusian to Greece and then onto the flight. This version was all the more plausible because on Sunday afternoon, the day of his arrest, one of the planes of the Rossiya Special Flight Unit [belonging to the Russian presidential administration] landed in Minsk. Behind this ominous name is an airline that only transports the highest Russian officials and commanders of the military and special services. ”

The commentator in Gazeta Polska codziennie quoted above concluded from this that “the case of the hijacking of the Ryanair plane by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime shows how dependent the Belarusian services are on their Russian counterparts. The entire operation to kidnap Roman Protasevich, an anti-government blogger, was directed from Moscow. (…) Only Vladimir Putin can guarantee Lukashenko’s survival in Belarus today.”

Indeed, this is what historian Marian Piłka, a member of the conservative Christian party Prawica Rzeczypospolitej (Right of the Republic), pointed out in the first May issue of the conservative (but not necessarily pro-PiS) weekly Do Rzeczy: Poland should be more realistic in its policy towards Belarus. A national revival of Belarusians is in Poland’s interest, but it would be naive to believe that “Belarusians will become an anti-Russian nation-state.” In order to slow down or prevent the integration of Belarus into Russia, or at least into the “Russian military system”, it would have been better if the government of Mateusz Morawiecki had not directly supported the Belarusian opposition – which pushes Lukashenko into Putin’s arms and leads to repression against the Polish minority in Belarus – but had relied on long-term action to help strengthen the Belarusian national identity.

Nevertheless, after the hijacking of the Ryanair plane on Sunday, May 23, even nationalist Krzysztof Bosak, one of the leaders of the least Atlanticist group in the Polish parliament, Konfederacja (Confederation – a coalition of nationalists and libertarians), said on radio:  “The aggression with the use of military equipment, the disinformation given to the plane’s crew, and the forced landing of the plane – such things cannot be passed over in silence, because it would only embolden the regime. Dictatorships only understand the language of force. (…) If Poland or our NATO and EU partners do not show some determination to use force, the next step could be the abduction of Belarusian opponents on Polish territory.” And that is why, even in his view (as the position of the other parties represented in the Polish parliament is not in doubt): “The decision to close Polish airspace to aircraft from Belarus is a natural consequence of what the regime of Alexander Lukashenko has done” because “there must be a clear response.”