As global leaders expressed outrage at Belarus’ “hijacking” of a Ryanair plane and the detention of an opposition activist, Russia was notable for its vociferous defense of the country. Now, analysts are saying Moscow stands to benefit from Belarus’ further estrangement from the West.
Belarus on Sunday ordered a Ryanair flight carrying prominent Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich to divert to its capital Minsk, whereupon the activist was detained. Russia described the uproar in the U.S. and Europe as “shocking” and accused the West of having double standards.
Russia has been steadily increasing its power and influence over its neighbor Belarus, but the countries’ leaders President Vladimir Putin and President Alexander Lukashenko are somewhat uncomfortable allies — it’s arguable that any allegiance is fragile at best, and borne out of necessity.
For Belarus, Russia is a powerful economic and political partner and a source of support, having backed Lukashenko’s leadership which is now in its 27th year.
For Russia, Belarus offers an opportunity to exert economic and political influence in the region, and is a convenient bulwark against what it sees as the European encroachment upon its former territories, such as Ukraine. Putin is known to favor stability and predictability and, as such, a longstanding leader like Lukashenko in power — who can potentially be more easily influenced — is favored over regime change.
Was Putin involved?
Experts who follow Russia closely say Putin would have known, if not authorized, the “hijacking” incident. Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, noted on Monday that ”“Lukashenko is now totally dependent on Putin for his survival in office and would not have risked his relationship with the Kremlin by undertaking such a cavalier move unless he had been first given the green light by Putin.”
“I think if anyone doubted whether Lukashenko was ‘all in’ with Putin, in his power vertical/sovereign democratic model, and indeed of Belarus’s deeper integration into Russia, then I think this sends a resounding answer … there are no bridges left standing back to the West, and he is willing to surrender Belarus’ sovereignty to save his own skin.”
Read more: Belarus accused of ‘hijacking’ plane to arrest activist, provoking outrage in the West
Putin’s leverage over Lukashenko strengthened recently when, last September, Putin gave Belarus a $1.5 billion loan and agreed to boost trade. The move was widely seen as a gesture of support for Lukashenko following weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation after he won an election which the opposition said was rigged. Lukashenko denied this allegation.
Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, emerged from the ornate Lyndon Baines Johnson Room on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol. He had just finished a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer along with other families of police violence victims, including Eric Garner, Botham Jean and Terence Crutcher. A black mask covered his face with the numbers 8:46 – the length of time his brother was originally believed to have been pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Testimony during the Chauvin trial later revealed it was actually 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
“This legislation has my brother’s blood on it and all the other families’ blood on it,” he told a small group of reporters squeezed in front of an elevator bank outside of the Senate chamber. “We’re hurting, we’re still in pain.”
It’s been one month since his last visit to Capitol Hill to lobby for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House in March. With its fate now in the hands of the Senate, the Floyd family is returning to Washington Tuesday to meet privately with President Biden at the White House on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s killing — although it won’t be for a signing ceremony.
In a joint address to Congress in April, the president implored Congress to finish police reform by the anniversary of Floyd’s death.
“The president is still very hopeful that he will be able to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act into law,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “We are very closely engaged with negotiators while also leaving [the Senate] room to work.”
Congressional negotiations have intensified in recent weeks, led by New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, South Carolina GOP Senator Tim Scott, and California Congresswoman Karen Bass, a Democrat.
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“This anniversary serves as a painful reminder of why we must make meaningful change,” the trio said in a joint statement Monday. “While we are still working through our differences on key issues, we continue to make progress toward a compromise and remain optimistic about the prospects of achieving that goal.”
Booker spoke with the president Friday and described him as “understanding and empathetic” about the missed deadline.
While most House members have returned to their districts for a work period with their constituents, Bass is staying in Washington this week for meetings.
“We obviously are not going to make the May 25 deadline but I don’t have any reason to think it’s going to be two months later,” Bass told CBS News. “Right now, I don’t have any reason to think it won’t be more than a couple of weeks.”
One of the key sticking points has been whether to end qualified immunity, which shields officers from lawsuits and civil liability.
“Everybody has been a little over-focused on qualified immunity because there’s a lot more to the bill than that,” she said. “We have not come to an agreement on qualified immunity — that’s an overstatement — but I do think that we are closer and are trying to look for various solutions.”
“Given that police violence, as a weapon of structural racism, continues to have devastating and deadly consequences for Black and brown lives across our country, we strongly urge you to not only maintain but strengthen the provision eliminating qualified immunity as negotiations in the Senate continue,” the progressives wrote.
Scott and Booker worked on police reform over the weekend. Scott told reporters they have been in touch with law enforcement and “groups on the left”.
“We still are pulling two sides closer together,” Scott said. “It is a conscious effort.”
Lawmakers have also been deadlocked over changing Section 242 of the U.S. Code to require a jury to decide whether a law enforcement officer acted with reckless disregard in order to convict, rather than the current standard of “willfulness.”
But there are some areas of agreement: limitations on the use of police chokeholds, standards for no-knock warrants and limits on the sharing of military equipment by the Defense Department with police departments.
“They are determined that they stay steadfast in this bill,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who counts the Floyd family among her Houston constituents and co-sponsored the House version. “They believe qualified immunity is an important element of this bill. They certainly believe no-knock is an important element, the end of racial profiling. They believe that training and the determination of what is excessive force and what is not is very important.”
Law enforcement organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, and civil rights groups, like the NAACP, are keeping close tabs on the discussions. NAACP President Derrick Johnson plans to meet with lawmakers Tuesday and has been pushing for an end to qualified immunity.
The Justice Department released a portion of an internal memo cited by former leaders as part of their decision concluding that former President Donald Trump did not obstruct justice, but in a court filing late Monday said they would seek to block the full document from release.
The move is certain to disappoint watchdog groups and Biden administration allies in Congress, who have called for transparency about alleged wrongdoing in the Trump years — and accountability for officials who allegedly abused their power.
Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Sheldon Whitehouse recently wrote to new Attorney General Merrick Garland, urging him to end the court battle and make the document public “in order to help rebuild the nation’s trust in DOJ’s independence after four years of turmoil.”
The lawsuit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, is one of the first public tests of how new DOJ leaders will handle questionable activity by their predecessors. During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden had an uneasy reaction to the idea of a federal case against Trump.
NAACP spokesperson Jonah Bryson said in a statement that although the group hoped for the bill to be signed by May 25, it “wants to see the right bill, not a rushed bill.”
Reverend Al Sharpton made a renewed push for the legislation during a remembrance rally on Sunday in Minneapolis.
“George Floyd should not go down in history as just someone with a knee on his neck. George Floyd should go down in history that broke the neck of police racism, police brutality, and police illegality,” Sharpton told the crowd.
George Floyd’s sister, Bridgett, also addressed supporters and will meet with Mr. Biden on Tuesday. She will be joined by Floyd’s siblings, Philonise, Terrence, Rodney, and his daughter, Gianna, along with other family members.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin dismissed any suggestion that Russia was involved in the forced landing of the Ryanair plane, saying such a notion was the result of anti-Russian sentiment.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was unduly accused of everything these days, Reuters reported, and that critics had let their hatred of Russia affect their judgement.
More sanctions unlikely to work
Like Russia, Belarus is also subject to international sanctions, namely for its intimidation and repression of protesters, opposition members and journalists.
On Monday, EU leaders agreed to impose more sanctions on Belarus but analysts believe any new restrictions on Lukashenko, or other individuals or entities involved in the incident, are likely to be ineffective.
In fact, Emre Peker, director of Europe at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, noted Monday that the Ryanair plane “hijacking” incident was likely to benefit Russia by pushing Belarus closer to it — sentiment that was echoed elsewhere.
“President Vladimir Putin is likely to welcome the incident as a further issue driving a wedge between Belarus and the West,” Peker said in a note.
“Allegations of Russian involvement, meanwhile, will further complicate the EU’s ability to effectively respond to Belarus. Moscow accused the EU and its members of double standards, and will defend Minsk’s handling of the incident. Similarly, any new EU sanctions will draw Russian condemnation as Western interference … While Berlin will push for a strong EU reaction if Protasevich is not released, Germany is unlikely to target Nord Stream 2 in connection with the Ryanair incident.”
There are fears for Protasevich’s life, Belarusian opposition says
Matthew Sherwood, senior Europe analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said Monday that the whole episode shines a light “on how little sanctions are affecting domestic politics in Belarus.”
“The most recent set of sanctions were imposed after the disputed presidential election in August 2020, which led to protests that lasted for several months. However, with continued Russian political and economic support, Mr Lukashenka and his allies have been able to crack down on the opposition movement domestically, and the protests have largely fizzled out,” he said.
“We do not expect a new wave of Western sanctions to have any further real impact on the domestic situation, and they are likely to drive Belarus even closer to Russia.”
Other analysts note that the Lukashenko regime is becoming increasingly unpredictable, perhaps emboldened by its relations with Russia.
Nigel Gould-Davies is former U.K. ambassador to Belarus and a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the IISS. He told CNBC on Monday that the Ryanair incident showed that “Lukashenko is now an international threat, and not just a threat to his own people.”
“Secondly, it shows how insecure he feels himself to be if he goes to such trouble to detain a single journalist and risk international outrage and condemnation in violating international rules in this most flagrant way,” he added.