What happened in Belarus? Who is president Alexander Lukashenko, is it in the EU – and sanctions explained

News of a Ryanair flight being diverted by Belarus has alarmed world leaders, as calls for the release of journalist Roman Protasevich grow

Aircraft have been instructed to avoid Belarusian airspace following the “state-sponsored hijack” of a Ryanair flight to enable the arrest of a prominent critic of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.

Alongside this measure, Belarusian airlines have been barred from entering UK airspace unless specifically authorised Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced.

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Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he has instructed the Civil Aviation Authority to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace “in order to keep passengers safe”. He also suspended the operating permit for Belavia, the country’s state-owned airline.

Women with posters reading 'I am/we are Roman Protasevich' in the arrival area as passengers disembark from the Ryanair passenger plane from Athens that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarus authorities on 23 May (Photo: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Britain had strongly condemned the arrest of a Belarus opposition activist after the Ryanair flight he was travelling on was diverted from its route to land in the country.

Belarus state media said the aircraft – which was travelling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius – was switched to the Belarusian capital of Minsk following a bomb threat.

However, opposition groups said it was an operation by Belarus special services to “hijack” the flight so they could arrest blogger Roman Protasevich.

Protasevich was involved in the opposition movement against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin – during the 2020 presidential election.

A woman stands with a poster reading 'Where is Roman?!' in the arrival area as passengers disembark from the Ryanair passenger plane from Athens that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk on the same day by Belarus authorities on 23 May (Photo: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images)

The EU has joined the UK in new sanctions against Belarus, with the 27 members states agreeing to ban Belarusian airlines from EU airspace and airports, and recommending EU airlines do not fly to the country.

But where is Belarus? And why was the blogger arrested?

Here is everything you need to know:

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UK condemns Belarus after Ryanair flight carrying opposition activist diverted
In August 2020, riots broke out in Minsk as protesters and police clashed in Belarus's capital and across the country following the announcement of the results of Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election (Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Where is Belarus?

Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered by Russia to the east and northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest.

It covers an area of 80,200 square miles, and as of 2020, had an estimated population of 9.4 million people.

Belarus has the lowest Democracy Index – an index compiled by the research division of the Economist Group, a UK-based private company which publishes the weekly newspaper The Economist to measure the state of democracy – rating in Europe.

The country is also labelled as "not free" by US-based NGO Freedom House, and was rated as the worst country for press freedom in Europe in the between 2013 and 2014 by Reporters Without Borders.

Who is President Alexander Lukashenko?

66-year-old Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, and the former Soviet farm boss' reign has been controversial throughout.

His authoritarian style is reminiscent of the Soviet era, and Lukashenko was the only deputy of the Belarusian parliament to vote against the dissolution of the Union in 1991.

His administration controls the country's main media channels and regularly jails political opponents.

In August 2020, riots broke out in Minsk as protesters and police clashed in Belarus's capital and across the country, following the announcement of the results of Alexander Lukashenko’s landslide re-election.

The dissidence erupted following claims by state TV that the long-time president had been re-elected, with exit polls reporting he had received 80 per cent of the vote.

Lukashenko was seeking his sixth term in office, but had faced unprecedented opposition in the lead-up to the election, which had grown due to his approach to the coronavirus crisis, a similar, bolshy approach shared by other right-wing leaders like Donald Trump.

Early in the pandemic, Lukashenko claimed that citizens "just have to work" to combat the virus, saying "the tractor will heal everyone... the fields heal everyone."

He has also claimed that "sport, especially on ice, is better than any antiviral medication" because "it is the real thing", and once suggested that "poisoning" the coronavirus with vodka was an effective treatment against Covid-19.

In the 2020 elections, Lukashenko’s main opposition was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher and stay-at-home mother who took on the challenge of Lukashenko when her blogger husband Sergei Tikhanovsky was banned from running and sent to jail.

Tikhanovskaya refused to recognise the results of the vote, saying early reports of her only securing 9.9 per cent of the vote did not reflect the 70 – 80 per cent approval ratings she had been getting.

Election monitoring body the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has previously judged none of the previous presidential elections held during Lukashenko's reign to be free and fair, and 2020’s vote was shrouded in just as much suspicion and foul play.

More than 40 per cent of votes were cast ahead of election day, observers were not invited to monitor the election, and internet service across Belarus was disrupted on election day - opposition supporters said this made it harder for evidence of election fraud to be collected and shared.

Tikhanovskaya has since fled to Lithuania.

Who is Roman Protasevich?

Protasevich was a co-founder of the Nexta TV channel which was declared extremist by the authorities last year after helping to organise mass demonstrations against Lukashenko.

He subsequently fled to Poland and currently faces charges which could carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Belarus state media said Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the flight he was on to Minsk after a bomb threat was received while it was over Belarus territory.

Officials later said no explosives had been found on board while the deputy air force commander said the plane’s crew made the decision to land in the Belarus capital.

However Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said the plane had been forced to land there, adding the “regime is behind this”.

In a video released by Belarusian authorities on Monday (24 May) evening, Protasevich appeared to admit he was involved in organising mass protests in Minsk last year.

Seated at a table with his hands folded in front of him and speaking quickly, Protasevich said he was in satisfactory health and his treatment in custody was “maximally correct and according to law”.

But Roman’s father Dzmitry says his son was forced to appear in a video admitting to organising anti-government protests and that he appeared to have been beaten; he has dismissed the video as the result of coercion.

He said: ''I think he was forced. It's not his words, it's not his intonation of speech, he is acting very reserved and you can see he is nervous.

"It is very likely that his nose is broken, because the shape of it is changed and there's much powder on the front of it, all of the left side of his face has powder, there's some greasy stuff on the left side.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the video was “deeply distressing”, and called for Protasevich’s release.

He tweeted: “The video of Roman Protasevich makes for deeply distressing viewing. As a journalist and a passionate believer in freedom of speech I call for his immediate release. Belarus’ actions will have consequences.”

How has the UK responded?

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the UK is working with allies on a response to Belarus including “further sanctions”.

He said: “The UK condemns yesterday’s actions by the Belarusian authorities, who arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on the basis of a ruse, having forced his flight to land in Minsk.”

Lukashenko “must be held to account for his outlandish actions”, Raab said.

“The UK calls for the immediate release of Protasevich and other political prisoners held in Belarus. The UK is working with our allies on a coordinated response, including further sanctions.”

He also called for the International Civil Aviation Organisation council to meet urgently “to consider the regime’s flouting of the international rules safeguarding civil aviation”.

Is Belarus in the EU?

Belarus is not a member state of the European Union, and has shown no aspirations for joining the EU.

The country does maintain a bilateral relationship with the Union, and participates in a number of EU projects. However, following the disputed election of 2020, Lukashenko is not recognised as president by the Union.

Belarus has trade agreements with several European Union member states, including neighbouring Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

The European Union has joined the UK in new sanctions against Belarus, after a special meeting of the EU Council was held on Monday (24 May) evening, hours before an already-planned summit, with the 27 members states agreeing to ban Belarusian airlines from EU airspace and airports, and recommending EU airlines do not fly to the country.

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