Protesting the detention of Roman Protasevich in Warsaw, Poland, May 2021
Dawid Zuchowicz / Agencja Gazeta / Reuters

On Sunday, May 23, Belarus shocked the world by dispatching a fighter jet to force a Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania to change course and land instead in Minsk, where authorities then arrested two passengers: Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old exiled Belarusian journalist, and his girlfriend, Sofya Sapega. Pratasevich faces criminal charges for allegedly organizing “mass disturbances” via Telegram, an instant-messaging platform; Sapega has been charged with unspecified offenses. The European Union has called for an investigation and for adding to the EU sanctions that the government of Belarus’s authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, already faces. The United States seems likely to follow suit.

On Monday, Belarusian authorities distributed a 30-second video of Pratasevich nervously asserting that he had been treated well in custody and that he was cooperating with the investigation into his activities; a video of Sapega followed on Tuesday. Yet given the Belarusian government’s history of torturing prisoners and forcing them to release such statements, it was difficult to put much stock in these reassurances.

Lukashenko’s methods were novel; state-sponsored hijackings are rare. But Pratasevich’s arrest represents just the most recent example of a trend toward transnational repression, as authoritarian regimes increasingly seek to apply the brutal tactics they use at home to exiles and members of diasporas elsewhere in the world. In February, my colleagues at Freedom House and I released a report compiling 608 cases of such treatment around the world since 2014, including deportations, detentions, renditions, assaults, and assassinations. Authoritarian governments in every region and of every stripe have increasingly turned to such methods to combat what they see as an intolerable threat from increasingly networked, visible, and influential critics who hail from their countries but have found refuge elsewhere. The most shocking example in recent years was the 2018 killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at the hands of a hit squad dispatched by the Saudi government.

The main factor driving such transgressions is simple: a sense of impunity among authoritarians. Despite his clear complicity in Khashoggi’s killing, Mohammed bin Salman remains the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has given interviews to international media in which he has bragged about the operation his government carried out in August 2020 to abduct the exiled dissident Paul Rusesabagina. Lukashenko and others have clearly taken note. In hijacking the Ryanair flight and seizing Pratasevich, Belarus was not setting a new precedent but merely following an existing one.

Behind all acts of transnational repression is a presumption that the targets “belong” to the state from which they hail and a bet that their host countries—the places where they live, work, raise their families, and maybe even enjoy citizenship—will not risk a fight over someone who is not “native.” The only way to put a stop to this ugly trend is to make that gamble far riskier by hitting back hard against perpetrators—including Lukashenko—and demonstrating to autocrats that they will pay a steep price for carrying out such crimes.

THE UNFRIENDLY SKIES

Few other governments have resorted to the kind of skyjacking that Lukashenko pulled off. Perhaps the best known example took place in 1956, when France forced the grounding of a flight over Algeria in order to capture the Algerian independence leader Ahmed Ben Bella. More recently, in 2010, Iran forced a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan to land in Tehran, where it arrested the leader of a Sunni militant group.

Such blunt tactics are not the norm when it comes to transnational repression. A more common approach is for one government to co-opt or coerce local institutions in another country to carry out its dirty work. Turkey has refined this approach, pursuing a global campaign of renditions around the world since a failed coup attempt against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. In at least 17 countries as far afield as Bulgaria, Gabon, Kosovo, Malaysia, and Pakistan, the Turkish government has pressured or induced local authorities to detain Turkish fugitives or exiles. After sham legal proceedings, the detainees have been handed over to Turkey, in clear violation of international law that forbids refoulement to a country where a detainee may face ill treatment. Ankara claims to have brought more than 100 people to Turkey through these methods.

China has used similar tactics in its international campaign against Uyghur and Tibetan activists and other critics of the Chinese Communist Party. By applying intense pressure to local authorities in countries that depend on economic links to China, Beijing has been able to secure the detention of many of its most vocal detractors. Such coercion has even resulted in mass deportations to China, including the return of more than 100 people from Thailand in 2015 and of at least a dozen people from Egypt in 2017.

Pratasevich’s arrest represents just the most recent example of a trend toward transnational repression.

One common tactic of transnational repression is for an authoritarian government to abuse its access to Interpol. Contrary to a widespread misconception, Interpol is not a law enforcement agency but rather a communications platform. Its role is to disseminate notices requested by national police departments to a global network of law enforcement institutions. Although Interpol’s rules forbid the system’s abuse for political ends, the organization has little capacity to vet the flood of requests it receives. In 2019 alone, Interpol disseminated more than 13,000 Red Notices, which countries use to ask for other governments’ assistance in locating and arresting individuals. For states that want to expand their international reach, Interpol offers an easy, efficient, and cost-free alternative because there is no price for being caught manipulating it. Russia has excelled at abusing the system in this way; Moscow accounts for 38 percent of the public Red Notices currently in the Interpol system.

Although Belarus’s security services have a reputation for surveilling exiles, Lukashenko’s government has so far failed to successfully co-opt local institutions in other countries or systematically manipulate Interpol in order to get its hands on critics abroad. But this is not for lack of trying. In 2011 and 2012, the Belarusian opposition leader Ales Mihalevich was detained in Poland and then in the United States after Interpol issued a notice on behalf of Belarus. Although U.S. authorities eventually released him, the incident revealed how law enforcement agencies even in Western democracies can be turned into the agents of repressive regimes.  

Belarus’s resort to skyjacking may have been a result of its failure to disrupt the opposition abroad through other means. Seen in this light, the operation is an act of desperation rather than one of confidence. The use of such a flagrant and provocative tactic, without any plausible deniability or excuse, shows that Lukashenko is terrified. He is willing to risk severe damage to his reputation, his diplomatic relationships, and his country’s economy to arrest a single journalist. The benefit, he clearly believes, will outweigh those costs. It is now up to leaders in democratic countries to prove Lukashenko wrong.

HOW TO STRIKE BACK

The extraordinary nature of Lukashenko’s gambit has already provoked a number of unusual responses, including an International Civil Aviation Organization investigation, widening bans on transiting Belarusian airspace, and the closure of some European airports to the Belarusian state airline, Belavia. Those measure will impose financial and reputational costs for Minsk. The Lukashenko regime, however, will easily endure those setbacks, which are likely to be temporary and will impose limited financial costs. The same goes for targeted sanctions on individual Belarusian officials or agents that Washington and its European allies have already applied and will likely extend and broaden.

This points to the difficulty of grappling with transnational repression. The tactics that authoritarians use to hunt down their critics abroad are carefully adapted to take advantage of globalized systems of travel, data sharing, migration, and law enforcement. Such systems involve a great deal of international cooperation and coordination and rely on a high degree of mutual deference among governments. They also involve tradeoffs for both parties; European states benefit from the ability to fly aircraft over Belarus, so trying to cut off Belarusian airspace will harm them, as well. Authoritarians have learned how to take advantage of such interdependence, and there is no cost-free way for democratic countries to respond to transnational repression.

Nevertheless, to put an end to such exploitation, democratic governments should push for Belarus to be suspended from Interpol, which would send a powerful signal and would make it impossible for the Lukashenko regime to abuse Interpol notices. The flagrant abduction of an exile shows that Belarus cannot be trusted to act in good faith, and Interpol is not designed to handle bad-faith actors. Interpol’s rules allow for the agency’s General Secretariat to carry out a short-term suspension; a long-term one would need the approval of the Executive Committee. It will not be easy to achieve a suspension: Interpol has never taken such an action. At the very least, however, a push to suspend Belarus would help create momentum for reforming Interpol in ways that will make it a less pliant tool of transnational repression.

There is no cost-free way for democratic countries to respond to transnational repression.

Democratic governments should also ban the export to Belarus of digital surveillance technologies, such as the software that the Lukashenko regime has used to block access to social media platforms. Finally, and most important, the EU should impose stiffer significant sanctions on Belarus, targeting the country’s petrochemical industry, in particular. Belarusian exports of oil, potash, and fertilizer represent a drop in the bucket for EU consumers but a major source of revenue for Lukashenko’s regime.

Critics of these measures will argue that such sanctions will hurt EU consumers and countries such as Poland and Ukraine, which have strong economic links to Belarus. The EU should act to offset those costs and help those countries transition away from trade with Belarus. Other critics will point out that Russia will surely take steps to soften the impact of sanctions on Belarus’s economy. That is true, but any assistance Moscow offers will also represent a further drag on Russia’s own stagnating economy—not necessarily a bad thing, from the point of view of Washington and its European allies.

Authoritarian regimes all over the world will be watching carefully to see how democratic governments respond to Belarus’s outrageous provocation. The lack of any pushback to earlier acts of transnational repression has emboldened them. A failure to strike back hard will suggest to them that there is no line they cannot cross. In crafting a response to Lukashenko, the United States and its democratic allies must make sure to send a different message.

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