The World Today for June 08, 2021



The Laws of Air

Ryanair flight 4978 was over Belarus on a trip from Greece to Lithuania when an air traffic controller announced that they had a bomb on board. Soon after, a MiG fighter jet suddenly appeared to escort the commercial flight to the Minsk National Airport.

The bomb scare turned out to be a pretext for Belarussian authorities to arrest Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, his Russian girlfriend, both who live outside of the country, as the New York Times recounted in a podcast. Almost everyone else on board was allowed to continue to their destination.

The episode was a historic turn in global affairs, especially regarding international travel and transportation.

“Flying over a foreign country has, until now, felt to most people like teleporting past it,” wrote the Atlantic in an article that compared the flight 4978 incident to a hijacking that could compel airliners to stop at international borders like passenger trains often must do today.

Belarus did not change or break any laws, however. States can force down airliners flying in their airspace with impunity, Financial Times columnist Peggy Hollinger wrote. When Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered Protasevich and Sapega apprehended, however, he clearly broke the “spirit” of the conventions that governments leave commercial planes alone unless they are landing in their territory, she argued.

Lukashenko’s critics, who have long detailed his corruption and civil rights violations, preferred the second line of thought. European air regulators recommended that their airlines avoid Belarusian airspace from now on, redrawing the aviation map of Europe, CNN reported. Many now fly over Russian airspace.

European airports have also banned incoming flights on Belavia, the Belarussian state-owned air carrier, added Tass, a Russian state-owned news agency. The company, the country’s only airline, is now on the brink of insolvency, wrote Reuters.

The US and Europe have already imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials after they ordered the arrests of 34,000 people protesting over Lukashenko’s win of a sixth term in an election last year that critics said was rigged, CNBC explained.

The incident is also likely to complicate the meeting between American President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin on June 16, argued Tatsiana Kulakevich, a Russia expert at the University of South Florida, in the Conversation.

Biden is likely to view the incident as a violation of goodwill. Russia, on the other hand, is Belarus’ closest and most important ally. Lukashenko has made gestures to maintain Belarus’ independence from its big neighbor but he is squarely within Russian President Vladimir Putin’s zone of influence, according to France24.

Protasevich, meanwhile, recently praised Lukashenko’s leadership on public television. The dissident, who many believe has been tortured, might face the death penalty.

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