European leaders will discuss possible sanctions after Belarus ordered a flight transiting its airspace to land and arrested a journalist on board in an unprecedented violation of European air travel protocols.
The forced landing and arrest of Raman Pratasevich, 26, who had fled Belarus after covering nationwide protests last year, drew sharp and unified condemnation from the US and the European Union.
EU leaders, meeting for dinner in Brussels on Monday at the start of a two-day summit, will weigh measures such as travel restrictions and possible flight bans, according to two officials familiar with the matter. That would be top of a new sanctions package that Brussels was preparing to present next month.
But the bloc’s influence may be limited after years of sanctions against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime have had little impact and Minsk enjoys strong support from its closest ally in Moscow after a brutal crackdown on opponents.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised leaders would discuss consequences for Belarus’s diversion of the plane as it flew between Athens and Vilnius, calling it a “hijacking” and urging Pratasevich’s immediate release.
The simplest route for the EU is to impose more sanctions against individuals and entities, according to one of the officials. Other options, such as suspension of all flights by EU airlines over Belarus, banning state carrier Belavia from landing at airports in the bloc, and a halt to all transit, including ground travel from Belarus to the EU, would trigger increased costs for European companies, the person said.
Restrictions on air travel, meanwhile, risk further isolating ordinary Belarusian citizens after land borders were effectively closed for most travel to EU countries and Ukraine under the pretext of coronavirus restrictions.
Belarus’s Soviet-style economy depends mostly on trade with Moscow, which provides vital energy supplies and buys billions in Belarusian products. The EU accounts for about 20% of Belarus’s trade turnover compared to about half with Russia, according to the country’s foreign ministry.
Worries over potential sanctions are scaring away bond investors. Belarus’s dollar bonds due 2031 tanked on Monday, sending yields surging 60 basis points to 7.84 percent, the highest since August.
The international fury was triggered after a Mig-29 fighter jet escorted the plane carrying scores of passengers to the Belarusian capital on Sunday, following a bomb threat that turned out to be fake.
“This was a case of state-sponsored hijacking,” Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said in comments broadcast by RTE Radio. The airline has to do a “detailed debrief today with the NATO and EU authorities” after the incident, which he said saw passengers and crew held under armed guard.