The West Is Failing Belarus

A hijacked flight forced attention back on the European country. The world must respond, the leader of the Belarusian prodemocracy movement told The Atlantic, and fast.

Protestors hold up images of political prisoners
Piotr Lapinski / NurPhoto / Getty

When the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko plucked a dissident journalist out of the sky, he proved two things: that his 27-year grip on power is unhindered by international isolation, and that, absent meaningful action by the United States and Europe—whose citizens were among the passengers on the hijacked flight—nothing is going to change.

That, at least, is how Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya sees it. “Since December, we haven’t had any sanctions; we haven’t had any high-profile meetings,” the Belarusian opposition leader and self-styled leader of democratic Belarus told me from her office in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, where the Ryanair flight carrying the Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich was headed. Protasevich never made it to Vilnius, though, and neither did his girlfriend—both were detained after the flight was diverted to Minsk under the ruse that the Palestinian militant group Hamas had made a bomb threat (it had not). Tsikhanouskaya took the same flight only a week ago, and she told me she would have never imagined that something like that could happen. “Maybe I could be in Roman’s place,” she said.

That place is a Minsk detention center, where Protasevich appears to have been beaten and forced to confess to “organizing mass riots.” Tsikhanouskaya, meanwhile, remains in Vilnius, fighting the Belarusian prodemocracy movement’s corner on the world stage. Although her meetings with leaders and international bodies have reaped key wins—including widespread international refusal to recognize Lukashenko as the rightful leader of Belarus following last summer’s fraudulent presidential election, as well as U.S. and European sanctions against top Belarusian officials—they appear to have had little effect on the staying power of Europe’s last dictator. “The threat of sanctions stops [Lukashenko] from escalating violence,” Tsikhanouskaya told me during our Zoom call, “and that’s why very strong steps should be taken right now.”

Some steps have been taken since Protasevich’s kidnapping, albeit ones narrowly tailored to the interception of the Ryanair flight and the detention of the journalist, who is perhaps best known for being one of the original editors behind a popular Telegram channel used to organize demonstrations at the height of the grassroots prodemocracy movement last summer. In addition to calling for further EU sanctions, European leaders have also advocated for the bloc to ban Belarusian airlines from accessing the bloc’s airspace and airports. Britain announced that it too would consider sanctions, and advised U.K. airlines against flying over Belarusian airspace. In the U.S., President Joe Biden welcomed the call for further sanctions, noting that the U.S. would work to develop its own retaliatory measures in cooperation with allies.

Tsikhanouskaya said that it would be a mistake for world leaders to see these recent events as separate from the overall situation in Belarus, where more than 400 political prisoners continue to languish in prison. But she admits that getting countries to continue caring about the fight for democracy in her home country—which this weekend marks the first anniversary of the beginning of the movement against Lukashenko’s rule—hasn’t always been easy. “Sometimes you see real support and a real wish to help,” she said of her meetings with politicians and diplomats, “and sometimes in meetings, you see empty eyes.” In the latter instances, she told me, she tries to steel herself and turn off her emotions, to “just tell them mechanically what is happening.”

When I asked Tsikhanouskaya what practical steps she would want to see governments take, she told me that tougher sanctions, of the kind the U.S. reimposed on nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises earlier this year, are vital. “They turned out to be the most effective,” she said, noting that some companies have halted trade with Belarus as a result. She also wants an international conference focused on resolving the crisis in Belarus—one that she has previously said should include representatives from both Moscow and Minsk. (Although Tsikhanouskaya has expressed hopes that the Belarusian opposition would be invited to attend next month’s G7 summit, in England, a British government spokesperson told me that “there are no current plans to invite further national participants,” though those who will be in attendance “will discuss current global issues, including Belarus’s reckless and dangerous behavior.”)

Just how fruitful those discussions will be, and whether they will result in genuine impact, remains to be seen. If Western countries focus on restrictions on Belarusian airspace and financial penalties for top Belarusian officials, it’s hard to see what effect those policies can have on the domestic situation there. Lukashenko has proved impervious to Western sanctions in large part because he knows that he can rely on the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who not only offered to deploy Russian police forces to quell Belarus’s prodemocracy protests if “the situation gets out of control,” but also provided Lukashenko with a $1.5 billion loan. Whether Moscow supported Lukashenko’s decision to hijack a plane is unclear, but some Russian state media were quick to offer their praise.

This isn’t the first time Tsikhanouskaya has expressed disappointment over the international community’s response to what is happening in Belarus. When I spoke with her in December, the Belarusian opposition was optimistic about the influence of the incoming Biden administration, and she told me she believed that Europe could be “braver” and “stronger” in its response. She still does.

But she also thinks that perhaps she and other Belarusians overestimated the speed at which support would come—and underestimated Lukashenko’s cruelty. Had international pressure more quickly and forcefully coincided with the protests’ peak, she mused, perhaps things would have changed by now.

But the way Tsikhanouskaya sees it, just because Lukashenko remains in power doesn’t mean he has won. “He is in his palace,” she said, “but he is not in the heads and hearts of people anymore, and this is what matters.”

She plans to continue seeking support from the international community, including the Biden administration, and hopes to visit Washington, D.C., once COVID-19 restrictions are no longer an impediment. When I asked her whether this past week has made her fearful for her safety while traveling, she told me that in the year since she became the face of this movement, “I doubt that there was a day when I didn’t feel fear.” But it didn’t stop her then, and it won’t now.

“While I’m free,” she said, “I’m going to fight.”