Ryanair Flight 4987 on May 23, was flying over Belarus and well on its way over to Lithuania from Greece when the crew onboard received an alarming message about a potential bomb in the flight. A MiG-29 fighter jet was immediately sent to escort it to Belarus' capital, without revealing any information to the passengers to avoid possible panic on board.
The military jet that guided the plane had also asked the Ryanair flight to land the aircraft as soon as possible. When the pilot landed, it quickly became clear that there was no bomb on board; instead, the crew and passengers were faced with the harsh reality meted to them by the Belarus government which was searching for a 26-year-old journalist and staunch critic of the incumbent government - Roman Protasveich, who was said to be on the same flight.
Notably, Protasveich was notorious for being one of the Belarus government and its President Lukashenko's most vocal critic and powerful political enemies. Last summer in 2020, when the Belarusian President claimed to have won a sixth consecutive term in office, massive protests were set off that nearly brought the government down. Protasveich was part of the protests and was popular for founding NEXTA, an independent news channel that operated on Telegram, which helped people inform and organise protestors.
As the State censored coverage of the election and protests, NEXTA quickly became the anti-government movement's new face and news outlet. In a country that has a total population of 9.5 million people, NEXTA's subscriber base grew to a staggering 1.5 million. The news channel became so influential, that the Belarusian government deemed it and its logo as "terrorist materials" and labelled Protasveich as a "Wanted Terrorist".
Following the alleged threats and political violence that faced him in his home country, the 26-year-old lived in exile in Poland, where he had reportedly been working on another Telegram-based news outlet. This was one of the reasons why he was travelling to various European nations, until his untimely capture and kidnap by the Belarusian government.
This forced landing and abdication have set off shockwaves across countries, especially in the airline industry. Air travel is based on international trust and Belarus' actions have shattered that trust, noted some top political leaders from Europe. The UN's aviation wing, for its part, has exclaimed that Belarus' actions are in violation of existing treaties. The US too has chimed in and called the incident 'shocking' and 'outrageous' and promptly referred to the event as a hijack.
Ireland, where Ryanair is based and headquartered has called for strict punishment opining that 'inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus'. It's imperative to note that Belarus is already a relatively poor and isolated country in Europe and the global aviation industry and airline operators have now raised several piercing questions about the future of airlines over this incident.
Russia, which has been steadily increasing its power and influence over its neighbour and uncomfortable ally Belarus stands to benefit from the latter's further estrangement from the West.
Amid western pressure, Belarus continues to rely on Russia for political and financial support. Kremlin, however, in the meantime has made no direct comment on the diverted flight but it is expected that they will take a firm stand behind Lukashenko's government.
If a country as small as Belarus has the ability to effectively steal an aircraft to arrest an alleged dissident, it could empower other countries, which weakening their opponents globally, noted the UN statement on the incident.
Reportedly, the plane had already begun its descent into Lithuania when it was diverted. Protasveich is currently staring at the death penalty in Belarus for his alleged crimes and anti-government propaganda.