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Belarus plays airspace poker with a weak hand

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A Ryanair aircraft, which was carrying Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and diverted to Belarus, where authorities detained him, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania May 23, 2021. REUTERS/Andrius Sytas

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LONDON, May 25 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Alexander Lukashenko is learning the downside of airspace poker. In using military pressure to force a Ryanair commercial flight to land in Minsk so he could arrest a journalist, the Belarus president is not the first leader to weaponise his country’s national airspace. Unfortunately, it’s a hard game to play well.

What outraged western powers call “air piracy” is rare. Countries are incentivised to play nicely because they can make hundreds of millions of dollars a year by charging airlines to use their airspace. Some can throw their weight around, either by being too big to easily fly around or too rich to feel the hit if airlines boycott their airspace.

Belarus’s close ally Russia, the world’s biggest country by land mass, is best suited to taking a tough stance. Flying from Europe to destinations like Hong Kong or Japan takes around four hours longer if airlines avoid Siberia, as happened during the Cold War. The country threatened to close its airspace in 2014 following its invasion of Crimea. Yet even Moscow preferred not to lose so-called overflight fees that brought in $420 million in 2008, according to the European Union. Russia’s airspace stayed open.

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Saudi Arabia’s 2017 blockade of Qatar shut the skies round the emirate. Qatar Airways subsequently filed a $5 billion compensation claim against Riyadh and its allies, suggesting diverting Qatari planes to fly around the Arabian peninsula was painful. But the state’s gas-rich economy sucked it up.

Airlines like Germany’s Lufthansa, the Netherlands’ KLM and Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI) have said they will avoid Belarus airspace. An official told Reuters each overflight generates $500, and the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation says 2,081 flights other than those by state carrier Belavia flew over the country in the week to May 19. That implies income of around $54 million per year, not immaterial for a state with a GDP of only $60 billion.

Other countries are not averse to weaponising their airspace. In 2013 the United States pushed European states to divert a flight from Moscow carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales to Austria, in the mistaken belief that intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was on board. It confirms that, to play airspace poker, countries need to be big or rich, and preferably both. Belarus is neither.

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CONTEXT NEWS

- KLM, the Dutch arm of carrier Air France-KLM, said on May 24 it would temporarily halt flights over Belarus after the country forced a Ryanair flight to land and detained a dissident journalist.

- European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on May 24 agreed to widen the list of Belarusian individuals they already sanction and called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to urgently investigate Belarus forcing a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on a flight from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday.

- Lufthansa will no longer make flights in Belarus’s airspace until further decisions are made in this regard, a spokesperson for the airline’s press service told Interfax on Monday evening.

- UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted on May 24 that he had instructed UK airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace “in order to keep passengers safe”. He also suspended national airline Belavia’s operating permit.

- In a video posted online, the detained journalist, Roman Protasevich, 26, said he was in good health, being held in a pretrial detention facility in Minsk, and acknowledged having played a role in organising mass disturbances in the capital last year.

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