In recent months, Europe has watched impotently from the sidelines as Alexander Lukashenko brutally reasserted his illegitimate authority over the population of Belarus. The protest movement that threatened the survival of his regime after fraudulent 2020 elections has, for the time being, been subjugated: a combination of state violence, media suppression, incarceration and torture has battered a people into temporary submission. The modest sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States have had limited effect, while deepening the dependency of “Europe’s last dictator” on Vladimir Putin’s largess and goodwill.
Calibrating a response to state repression that will not play into Mr. Putin’s hands has not been easy. But for the EU in particular, Monday’s extraordinary abduction of Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist based in Lithuania, must be the catalyst for a stepchange in strategy. Along with his girlfriend, Mr. Protasevich was abducted from Ryanair flight FR4978, which was crossing Belarusian airspace while flying from Athens to Vilnius. It appears he was followed onto the commercial flight by members of the Belarusian KGB. Passengers have reported Mr. Protasevich’s panic and terror as the flight was diverted to Minsk on spurious grounds, accompanied by a MiG-29 fighter jet. The opposition movement’s main figurehead, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has said that he may face the death penalty.
The effect on other Belarusian dissidents will be chilling. Ms. Tikhanovskaya, currently exiled in Vilnius but a frequent traveler across Europe, took the same route a week earlier, after speaking in Greece. With Minsk more or less under control, Mr. Lukashenko has begun to pick off prominent opponents still at large. Last month, his former spokesman, Alexander Feduta, who had joined the opposition movement, was detained in Moscow and taken back to Minsk, where he has been charged with trying to organize a coup.