Western media like to run headlines warning of a “new Cold War” every time a new conflict or act of repression occurs in post-Soviet authoritarian, But Belarus’ brazen intercepting of a Ryanair jet is something that never would have happened on either sid
Is history repeating itself, only this time as a farce?
The problem is, the forced diversion of a European plane ordered by Belarus strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko — of a European company, with European passengers on board of a flight circulating within Europe — is an episode that wouldn't have even dared happen in the Cold War.
There were rules back then, worked out with difficulty by both sides in the attempt to prevent the worst from happening. There was no trust, but there were talks, with precise protocols and a thousand difficulties: Between the Kremlin and the White House, the famous "red telephone" would be used only as the last resort to stop a nuclear war, just like the one narrowly averted with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Pieces were moved on the chessboard, and the Iron Curtain also served as a line dividing mutual safe zones: a tacit agreement prohibiting enemies from crossing over the Wall, and an escaped — or more likely, expelled — dissident could feel safe in the West.
After Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich was kidnapped, alongside an entire Ryanair plane, the world instead is facing a dictator who doesn't play by any rules.
Putin and Lukashenko at a Russian Cathedral, 2005 —Photo: President of the Russian Federation website
Lukashenko is looking to clash, not communicate; and yesterday's expulsion of the Latvian ambassador was only the latest proof of that. The 66-year-old who since 1994 has been the only ruler of post-Soviet Belarus is behaving as if treaties, conventions, courts and international responsibilities didn't exist, sending a fighter jet armed with missiles to intercept a civilian airplane, force it to land and kidnapping a young journalist who now risks the death penalty.
Lukashenko is looking to clash, not communicate
The dialogue between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War followed a kind of code of hostility, based on the rational assumption that even enemies can try to build a system to co-exist. The problem is that Lukashenko thinks only about his regime in personal terms. He is not the son of a system or attached to an ideology that would make him feel part of a mission bigger than himself.
The Soviet Union possessed a well-structured political system and a protocol for succession. Lukashenko — a veritable populist, who came to power 20 years before the term entered common use in the region — doesn't have an ideological dictatorship, because he has no ideology. Like other examples of such neo-autocratic rulers, including Vladimir Putin, or even Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Belarus leader is the inventor of a personality-driven regime of corruption and unlimited power that will die with him.
Each day he survives is an achievement for Lukashenko, independent from the price that is paid around him. But an even greater danger of this one-man farce is the question of what happens after he is gone.
*Zafesova is a native of Russia and former Moscow correspondent for La Stampa