What Belarus notices about EU flight ban

EU Heads of Government announced economic sanctions against Belarus last week in response to the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich. Aeroplanes from Belarus are banned from the EU and European airlines are advised to avoid Belarusian airspace. In Brussels, the package of measures is now being developed further. What is Belarus already aware of these measures, and whether the authorities in power in the country are affected?

Protasevich was taken from a Ryanair plane which had been diverted to the capital of Belarus under false pretenses. The anger of this led the Heads of Government of EU Member States to the unexpectedly rapid and united decision to close airspace and tighten sanctions (economic and personal). Further sanctions are expected to enter into force in the coming weeks.

In developing economic sanctions, the EU must bear in mind the Belarusian people and, above all, think out of the box, say opposition leaders. Otherwise, the sanctions will miss their purpose. Therefore, despite the direct financial impact, limiting aviation is not even such a good idea, they think.

The economic consequences now

The closure of the EU airspace to aircraft from Belarus already has financial consequences. The Heads of Government decided to close the airspace with immediate effect to Belavia, the national airline of Belarus. Belavia has suspended its 20 scheduled flights with 17 EU Member States. The company, which was already in severe weather due to the coronacrisis, will now have even more difficult. Analysts expect the Belarusian Government to contribute, and with that there is a direct economic impact for those in power.

The appeal to European airlines to fly has an immediate economic impact. Belarus applies a flat fee for flights across the country from 240 euros for smaller passenger aircraft up to 700 euros for the A380 Superjumbo. They seem to be small amounts, but because Belarus is on the route for flights between Europe and Asia, it earned 85 million in 2019. Earnings that are now to a large extent lost.

Lukashenko not afraid of sanctions

Due to the direct economic consequences for the government, the flight ban can serve as an example for other economic penalties. But the EU must be careful about this, says Laurynas Jonavicius, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Vilnius, specialising in Belarusian economy and international relations.

โ€œ For people who are afraid of the Lukashenko regime, the plane was actually the only way to flee the country. By cutting off this possibility, they are now stuck in Belarusโ€. It is very difficult to travel by land to EU Member State because the borders are hermetically sealed.

Jonavicius expects the European Union to put Belarusian state-owned enterprises on the sanctioning list. These companies work as the wallet of the regime, companies whose profits go more or less directly to Lukashenko. โ€œBut,โ€ he says, โ€œunfortunately, longer-term sanctions are less effective than we sometimes think. Belarus is much more dependent on large neighbour Russia than on the EU. Moreover, Lukashenko has nothing left to lose, he is already completely isolated and is not afraid of sanctions. The regime is also so cruel that they will recover the lost income from the population, so they will suffer. Thats a big dilemma.โ€

That pressure is needed, stressed opposition leader Tichanovskaya in The Hague on Friday in talks with Prime Minister Rutte. The Netherlands was one of the advocates in the EU of targeted economic sanctions. But according to Tikhanovskaya, Belarus could do what it did because there was no plan ready. Belarus, she says, must continue to be on the agenda.

That is also emphasized by Laurynas Jonavicius, he calls on EU leaders to think out of the box, to be creative, by imposing unexpected sanctions. โ€œThats why its important that politicians and experts who really know how the economy in Belarus is going to work together.โ€

How could Belarus hijack a plane containing a journalist and activist? And what are the rules in the airspace? CCEit on 3 explains: