The man dubbed “the last dictator in Europe” lived up to his billing over the weekend. In a provocative dare to the entire continent, Belarus despot Aleksandr Lukashenko effectively snatched one of his most prominent critics out of the sky itself. The question now is whether the European Union—of which Belarus is not a member but a neighbor—can find the courage and coordination to answer his challenge.
On Sunday, a Belarus fighter jet forced the landing of a Ryanair passenger flight from Greece to Lithuania. While the particulars remain a bit muddled, with reports of a fake bomb threat and scuffles in the sky, the outcome was clear: the arrest and forced detention of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, whose pioneering work has helped to expose the brutal regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko, the country’s “president” since 1994. Upon landing, Protasevich—who may now be facing the death penalty for his reporting—reportedly held his head in his hands, saying, “They’ll kill me here.”
The move stunned even those who’d grown accustomed to Lukashenko’s lawlessness, after he refused to concede an election he clearly lost last year. It was a “shocking act,” as the Greek prime minister said. Some dubbed it a “hijacking.” The Lithuanian president, perhaps most accurately, described it as a “state-sponsored terror attack.” Whatever the description, the brazen act was without precedent, at least in Europe. As Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, noted, Lukashenko’s operation targeted “a plane registered in EU (Poland), owned by a EU company (Ireland), full of EU citizens flying from one part of the EU (Greece) to another part of EU (Lithuania).”
Lukashenko clearly thought—and maybe still thinks—he could get away with it. The West, and especially the EU, have treated the post-Soviet autocracies that Lukashenko embodies with kid gloves ever since the Soviet Union first splintered some 30 years ago. Officials in Brussels have spent years coddling these goons, in places like Azerbaijan and Russia and Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, opening doors and whitewashing their regimes where they could. Lukashenko’s latest act is a critical moment for the EU to prove that it’s not simply the mealy-mouthed, hand-wringing talk shop so many now figure it for.
The initial European responses were not exactly heartening, but more muscular ones have started to arrive: All 27 EU leaders agreed on sanctions against Belarus and called on European airlines to stop flying over the country. This should be just the beginning of the EU’s response. All trade relations with Belarus should be effectively frozen. Individual sanctions should be imposed on all of the cronies and enablers still surrounding the self-declared president, with everything about his oligarchic supporters’ wealth in the West revealed to the public. All representatives of his regime should be summarily booted from Western capitals. And both Washington and Brussels, as well as London and Ottawa and Oslo, should explicitly recognize Svetlana Tikhanovskaya—the now-exiled politician who, by all appearances, throttled Lukashenko in the 2020 election—as the official head of the Belarusian government in exile.
Lukashenko may have set himself apart with Sunday’s “cinematically insane” gambit, but other autocrats surely have taken notice. Scholars have been tracking a rise in “transnational repression,” examining how anti-democratic governments have increasingly targeted opponents based elsewhere. From Russian secret services unleashing nuclear material in the U.K. to Chinese operatives disappearing critics based elsewhere, from Rwandan goon squads smuggling famous opposition figures back home to assassins working at the behest of the Tajik dictator offing critics abroad, dictators have begun realizing that borders are often little more than lines on a map. These operations have been met with muted concern in the West, emboldening those authoritarians to go one step further in their campaigns to target whomever they want, wherever they are.
Now, with Lukashenko’s success, those same regimes—the ones entrenched in power, three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union was supposed to usher in an era of democratization—are salivating. A new tool has suddenly appeared in their arsenal. And if there isn’t massive, concerted pushback from the West, we’re going to see repeats of this new tactic from every anti-democratic regime elsewhere in the region—in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and even in places like Serbia and Hungary. If the West waffles yet again, these kleptocratic dictators will attempt even more brazen acts across Europe, testing just how far they can spread their repression before the West does anything about it.