Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya says Belarus’s forced diversion of a passenger flight to Minsk last month was “a mistake” that has galvanized the West against authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Tsikhanouskaya told AP in an interview published on June 23 that “this hijacking touched all the European leaders because their citizens were on this flight.”
Lukashenka’s regime “never crossed this red line before, of interfering in a European area,” she said.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
“The regime is so frightened by the unity of Belarusians, by the unity of the European Union, the U.S.A., about this situation in Belarus that they stopped to think strategically. They started to think emotionally,” she added.
Lukashenka's regime has been under international pressure since it launched a brutal crackdown on the political opposition and the independent media in the wake of a disputed election in August 2020.
The protesters have said that election was rigged, insisting that Tsikhanouskaya won the poll.
The crisis hit a new level on May 23 when Belarusian authorities scrambled a military jet to escort an Athens-Vilnius Ryanair flight to land in Minsk in what many countries regarded as a "state hijacking." After the plane, which was diverted just before it left Belarusian airspace, landed, law enforcement immediately arrested opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend.
In response, the European Union, the United States, Britain, and Canada have slapped sanctions on Belarus that included asset freezes and visa bans imposed against dozens of officials, lawmakers, and ministers from Lukashenka's administration and his family members, as well as Belarusian entities.
EU foreign ministers also agreed to sanction key sectors of the Belarusian economy and major revenue sources for the regime, including potash fertilizer exports, the tobacco industry, petroleum, and petrochemical products.
European states have also banned Belarusian carriers from overflying their airspaces and from accessing their airports.
“This crisis is deepening,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
Lukashenka told a June 22 commemoration event marking the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R. that the latest sanctions, announced on June 21, were part of an ongoing "hybrid war" against his country.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said the sanctions would negatively impact the interests of citizens and warned that it would be forced to take reciprocal measures. It did not specify what measures could be taken.
The EU, the United States, and other countries have refused to recognize the official results of the election and do not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader.
Before the diversion of the Ryanair flight, they had already imposed sanctions against the 66-year-old autocrat, whom some describe as Europe's last dictator.
Tsikhanouskaya ran in last year’s election in place of her husband, video blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who was arrested in May 2020 after expressing his willingness to challenge Lukashenka.
After the vote, the 38-year-old political novice was forced to flee Belarus over safety concerns. She currently lives in neighboring Lithuania with her children, working to rally Western countries against Lukashenka.
The trial of Tsikhanouski and other opposition figures is set to begin in the southeastern city of Homel on June 24 on charges widely considered to be trumped-up.
If found guilty, Tsikhanouski faces up to 15 years in prison.
The others accused in the case include popular blogger and RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik, as well as Mikalay Statkevich, Uladzimer Tsyhanovich, Artsyom Sakau, and Dzmitry Papou.
“The trial will be closed. The trial will not be in court, it will be right in the prison. Lawyers will not have an opportunity to tell us what is going on,” Tsikhanouskaya told AP.
“We understand that the trial will not be lawful, will not be honest, will not be fair. In reality, judges can write any number of years in prison.”
The opposition leader said she expected the trial to last a month or two.
According to Tsikhanouskaya, if the authorities really cared about people “they would start a dialogue with Belarusians, they would release political prisoners, and solve this crisis in a civilized way."
"I imagine new elections this fall. This is our aim.”